Lexicon Valley

A New Play Will Scramble Your View of How Language Means, Mystifies, and Falls Short    

Eboni Booth in Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.

Julieta Cervantes

How can we come together if all our words are corrupt? Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., by British playwright Alice Birch, poses that question in ways that are fascinating even if you can’t make it to a performance at Soho Rep in Manhattan. (If you can, though, do.) The play, having its U.S. premiere, is a puckish, yet deadly serious meditation on how language molds our experience of sex and gender, a scalding cascade of interconnected vignettes exploring words and their limits.

Start with the script, a flat notation of actors’ voices, a dead thing.

“There should be at least one female character (that should probably be played by a female actor) in every scene,” the first page insists. The instructions march on: A dash indicates a change in speaker (the script refuses to assign particular lines to particular characters), words in square brackets are not spoken. “Most importantly,” Birch writes, “this play should not be well behaved.”

It’s a sly nod to the prompt that accompanied the Royal Shakespeare Company’s commission in 2014: that, per American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “well-behaved women seldom make history.” Birch and the RSC envisioned Revolt as counterprogramming to the company’s deeply male, Henry IV–centric summer lineup. With its dissolving structure, actors who are encouraged to stumble over and forget their lines, and radical politics, Revolt stands for everything that Shakespeare’s paean to celestial and earthly order is not. Robert Frost once suggested that a poem, “like a piece of ice on a hot stove,” must “ride on its own melting.” Revolt has the subversive and poetic desire to unmake itself before our eyes.

Directed with anarchic gusto by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Soho Rep’s production features three women, Molly Bernard, Eboni Booth, and Jennifer Ikeda, all excellent, and one man, Daniel Abeles, magnetized in his doofy good looks to power tides of misandrist rage. Each stand-alone scene presents a kind of linguistic puzzle, a case study in language failing to do what it’s supposed to. Usually that breakdown disadvantages women, though men can be casualties as well.

The first sketch opens midseduction, as two people murmur about how they want to pleasure each other. He plans to “make love to” her, but she prefers that he “make love with” her. She starts to say she will “take” her vagina; he interrupts that you cannot “take” a vagina because a vagina is a gap. “I’m pushing,” he begins again, and she resists serving as his grammatical and sexual object. “I am completely wrenching you and I am jumping you and hiding you and chomping down upon you!” she explodes. “I am blanketing and locking you and draining the life of you with my massive, structured, beautifully built, almighty vagina!”

The date does not end well.

Birch’s opening puzzle underscores how language shapes reality—how different words can describe and inform the same thing. Her second deconstructionist game showcases the same words signifying different things. Scene 2 transports us to the wreckage following a man’s marriage proposal. He and his girlfriend sit on the floor, looking shell-shocked. “I just told you I loved you,” he says. “I want to have a life with you … I just said that I just wanted to commit to you.” “No,” she replies. “You essentially said you wanted to reduce your income tax.”

To understand each other, we need our language to be pure, and yet it reeks with motive, insinuation, history. How can we join together if all our words, our invitations to marriage, our romantic overtures, are polluted? Birch explores both the careless phrasing of the proposer and, elsewhere, those who extrapolate overtones and connotations instead of taking communication at face value. In the third scene, an employee tells her boss over and over that she would like Mondays off. He will not hear it, and evades her explicit meaning by inferring subtexts she never intended: “So you’re saying you want to bring your dogs to work?” “OK, is it cancer?”

The stakes rise as Birch’s neat schoolroom demonstrations of linguistic failure admit more and more violence. Words and bodies blur together. Now a woman “speaks” with her naked form, lying down in the fruit aisle of a grocery store amid stacks of ripe melons. “Where my body stops and the air around it starts has felt a little like this long continuous line of a battleground for about my whole life,” she says. But “there are borders here no more. … Because there is no in to come into, you cannot overpower it. Because I have given it you cannot rape it.”

By Act 2, the discrete scenes have followed her lead, melting their edges to form an unbroken, disorienting narrative. In a polyphonic, breakneck finale, the cast wheels through a fantasia of female stereotypes and gender memes: police harassment, porn stars, body image. Revolt imagines people as embodied verbal signs: “She’s … adjectives,” one character says helplessly of another. When our words get messy, so do the proprieties by which we live our lives. Somehow, Birch argues, we need to liberate language, lift it off the page. And yet it may be too late for these tainted relics, the rotten fragments of a vocabulary that for centuries doubled as a prison.

Actually, the play doesn’t equivocate about that last point. Revolt’s crescendo of demented femininity ends in a tremendous explosion, replete with epileptically flashing lights and smoke flowing into the audience. It’s not hard to imagine Birch’s script immolated in the apocalyptic reset, the show consuming its own words in order to set the actors free. In retrospect, the description of such a play as “not well behaved” falls hilariously short of the mark. But what else would you expect from language?