An ‘Appointment’ with your gynecologist, Lightning Rod Special with a point of view at Fringe Arts
"The Appointment" is pulled from the headlines about women's rights and abortion. With singing and dancing, and a definite point of view, Lightning Rod Special brings its liberal stance to life. Jessica Rizzo questions the one-sidedness of the piece but says when it hits, it is devastating. Final performances today, March 30 or tomorrow, March 31, 2019. Ticket links at the bottom of the post.

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"The Appointment" by Lightning Rod Special at Fringe Arts. Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin.
“The Appointment” by Lightning Rod Special at Fringe Arts. Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin.

Lightning Rod Special, the Philadelphia-based theater company behind 2016’s much-lauded Underground Railroad Game, has turned its attention from American race relations to an equally contentious topic—the abortion debate. While less than perfectly confident in its satire, The Appointment identifies a number of ripe targets; it sometimes misses, but when it gets the tone right, its hits are devastating.

Vaudevillian in structure, The Appointment doesn’t so much stage a debate as enact a phantasmagoria of images culled from the culture wars. Imagine if the most gruesomely graphic signs held aloft by the most impassioned anti-abortion protesters demonstrating outside a Planned Parenthood came to life. Add gleefully deranged singing and dancing, and you have some sense of what The Appointment looks and feels like. The piece pivots around sober scenes that take place in a more-or-less naturalistically depicted abortion clinic where a woman is made to watch an ultrasound of her fetus and asked if she would like to hear its heartbeat before obtaining the procedure. The Appointment really hits its stride, however, when it takes its cues from the fringe perspectives on this emotional issue and abandons reality in favor of shameless melodrama.

Devised by the company (with Alice Yorke credited as “lead artist”) and directed by Eva Steinmetz, The Appointment makes much of the fact that the most vociferous opposition to abortion comes from men who have no direct experience of pregnancy and never will. Its most successful musical numbers feature male performers wringing every conceivable drop of pathos from subjective (and suspect) narratives of female abjection. In one, three twinkle-toed male healthcare providers explain to a waiting room of women that abortion carries significant physical and emotional risks, including the possibility that they will be so consumed by guilt after going through with the procedure that they will spend the rest of their lives wanting to (gasp!) kill themselves.

The parody succeeds because it hews so close to the source material—in some states, such “counseling” sessions are required by law. Of course, real doctors don’t sing such warnings to their patients while stepping in time, and the musical framework calls attention to the dubious tactics and excesses of these aggressive deterrence efforts.

Another highlight is Jaime Maseda’s all-too-brief turn as a disconsolate dumpster baby. Covered in trash and moving with the jerky uncertainty of a life form that hasn’t quite mastered the use of its limbs yet, he accompanies himself on the piano for “I Never Learned,” a self-pitying elegy for all the things he will never learn to do, now that his would-be mother has chosen to (gasp!) throw his life away. Maseda sings like a broken-down rock star, and his performance—at once macabre and joyfully campy—implicitly raises the question of why men get so aroused by this issue in the first place.

Maternity (or its refusal) represents a zone of experience beyond the reach of male understanding. For some men, particularly those in the legislature, it would seem that control has become a surrogate for this elusive understanding; the unruly multiplicity of women’s lived experiences gets carved up into a grid of compulsions and prohibitions, with particular shading varying by state.

"The Appointment" by Lightning Rod Special at Fringe Arts. Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin.
“The Appointment” by Lightning Rod Special at Fringe Arts. Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin.

In a surreal Thanksgiving dinner scene, for which the performers are dressed as fetuses, The Appointment also proposes that abortion captures the national imagination because the unborn child is such a potent symbol for the American dream itself—a promise, pure potential energy and unblemished possibility. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats alike unfailingly invoke family and “our children’s future” to justify specific policy proposals or lend general gravitas to their worldviews.

Can we as a culture make meaning without this metaphor? What values cease to be valuable when we abandon the idea that we will be redeemed by the next generation? What if instead of forever starting over, we tried contending with the messes we have already made?

The Appointment makes no pretense of seeking to offend or criticize in an equal-opportunity way. Its politics are clear; abortion is a women’s rights issue, and conservatives who would curtail reproductive rights are advancing a chillingly misogynist agenda that must be resisted. Perhaps inevitably, the piece fares worst where it makes earnest, respectful attempts to articulate the nuanced perspectives of pro-choice women. These perspectives clearly align with those of The Appointment’s creators, who don’t appear to have any interest in making fun of themselves.

I sympathize with them; with the current composition of the Supreme Court, reproductive rights can seem too vulnerable and too important to joke about. Still, the piece might be stronger if it committed to a tone, even if that meant taking the risk of putting a couple of feminazi baby killers on stage alongside their wacky caricatures of Christian conservatives. As it is, The Appointment feels, well, penciled in.


The Appointment has final performances Saturday, March 30 at 8 PM (tickets) and Sunday, March 31 at 2 PM (tickets) at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd (at Race Street), Philadelphia PA 19106.

Tags

culture wars, fringe arts, Lightening Rod Special, music and dancing, politics, theater

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