Philly Fringe 2017: Prime Theatre Syndicate presents Iris Dauterman’s ‘Trigger Warning’

Trauma works in mysterious ways

I can’t say anything about Iris Dauterman’s play Trigger Warning, produced in the Philly Fringe by the young Prime Theatre Syndicate, without first exclaiming that rape and sexual assault are not defined or solely perpetrated by an unwanted penis inside a woman’s vagina.

This smiling cast reveals deep pain onstage. (Photo by Krissy Haag.)

The show’s action follows “a fucked-up quilting bee” of five women students of Bloomington’s Indiana University. The students converge to create a device to “stop rape” that, in its design, seems to ignore the complex truths of sexual assault. But the play is worth seeing, particularly as a story written and directed by women, featuring women, about an important topic. It will leave you with plenty to discuss on the way home.

It’s the professional premiere of Trigger Warning and the company’s first production. Prime Theatre Syndicate was founded last year by Arden apprenticeship alums Brittany Brewer and Kevin White.

The faces of trauma

Perennial activist Helen (Donovan Lockett) and her roommate Anita (Emily Moylan), a loving but supercilious pragmatist coping with her own scars, host three other young women in their apartment near campus. Grace (Brewer, who, along with White, also serves as the show’s producer) makes for a smiling and warmhearted but unpredictable presence. Marlene (Sarah Heddins) handles her fears by broadcasting her makeup routines and sexcapades on YouTube. Celia (Claris Park) is an “emotional bloodhound” who spews uncomfortable truths despite being so traumatized she can’t look at or name her own body parts.

Some people like to say that “God works in mysterious ways,” but so does trauma. Dauterman’s script determinedly corrals many modern archetypes of trauma’s aftermath and imparts one to each character: anorexia, hypersexuality, sexual repression, insomnia, manic activism.

At a post-show talkback on September 10, a representative from Women Organized Against Rape lauded the show’s diverse and realistic portrayals of trauma and claimed that every kind of response to trauma was represented in the show, which simply is not true. But Dauterman’s script valiantly tackles a lot of ground, and committed, heartfelt performances from the cast and sure-handed direction from Arden artistic associate Sarah Scafidi carry the story well.

Too many survivors; not enough anger

Most of the characters’ dialogue about their trauma skirts the details with elisions and euphemisms, such as “as textbook as it gets.” But the show does pack in many apt truths.

“I never expected to find so many survivors in one little town,” Celia says. I realized I also am hard pressed to think of friends who have never suffered a sexual assault or abusive relationship. Illustrating the prevalence of this all-too-often-silent problem is crucial.

Helen’s take on managing her emotions resonated with me as well: “If I get angry, that’s the story,” she says. “That’s all people will see.”

As a woman writer, I’ve been counseled and criticized by readers who suggest I shouldn’t try to make my point until I can strip the anger out of my voice.

It’s maddening.

Whatever the drawbacks of Trigger Warning’s narrative and characterizations, Prime Theatre Syndicate is clearly a company of committed young professionals who mount a tight and finely detailed production, with set design from Dustin Pettegrew, lights by Eric Baker, sound by Mary Kate Smyser, and costumes by Sean Quinn.

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