Originally posted on Onstage NTX.
“Desire is powerful, it is a disruption.”
“This is a miracle…a symphony after so much quiet!”
There are so many, many pink pills in Sarah Saltwick’s The Pleasure Trials—spilling from pockets and purses, rolling across the stage, filling glass jars inside bright white lab cabinets. They’re swallowed one by one, by the handful—and crushed into powder for feeding to the lab’s herd of “virtuous, monogamous voles.” (Look the little critters up.)
And it’s all in the pursuit of happiness—the sexual sort, to be specific.
Directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni, this world premiere at Amphibian Stage does have a serious, thought-provoking side. But there are plenty of laughs too, as a pair of buttoned-down research scientists search for a “female libido enhancing drug” that will do the trick for millions of women. And the play’s visuals (the pink pills and pulsing bursts of light, the flatlines and peaks of measured sexual experience) insist there is endless color and variation to the story of women’s desire—from comedy to pain, from anger to bliss, from denial to explosion.
It’s going to be quite a ride. But no worries, says the younger brainiac to her older colleague (whose first rodeo this is not): “No one is going to die this time.”
The director and three of the area’s finer actresses take this quirky story and run with it. There’s imagination at work here, and fire in the belly. Not a man in sight, either. Is that why these women are so completely themselves?
Megan Haratine is Dr. Rachel Milan, the experienced head of the lab. Shyama Nithiananda plays Callie Young, a grad student whose paper on “Female Desire Deficit Disorder” (FDDD) caught Dr. Milan’s eye, and led to a partnership funded by corporate types salivating for a drug that “everyone will want.” Rachel is twitchy and stressed, a loner carrying scars from prior projects. Callie seems a “people person,” though she’s clearly bored with a high school boyfriend who gets precious little of her time. Both are ambitious, but in ways that don’t seem to mesh, even at the start.
There’s imagination at work here, and fire in the belly. Not a man in sight, either. Is that why these women are so completely themselves?
And Kelsey Milbourn plays everyone else. She is (or are) the women who come to sign up for the “pleasure trials,” from Anne to Zora, dashing in one-by-one to fill out paperwork, pick a “porno” to watch, and report on their sex lives in raves or rants, prose or poetry. (Kudos to backstage dresser Ryenne Bishop, who must have been breathing hard after all Milbourn’s quick changes.) Her women are funny, flirty, sensual, shocked, earthy, questing, mad as hell. You name it—you can’t take your eyes off them.
Austin-based Saltwick has a knack for crafting dialogue that gives us individualized characters—amusing, slangy, grumpy, real—and the pleasurably unexpected twists and turns of human conversation. But it’s also of interest that the playwright hides a series of small character clues inside all this natural, open speech. When a “Freaky Friday-ish” switch between characters occurs later in the play, there’s an “aha!” moment to be had in realizing the script has (subtly) paved the way.
The women of the trials face up to doubts about themselves, their husbands or partners, and whether their new desires are their own—or a creation of the drug. For the researchers, the women’s complicated emotional accounts make the notion of “objective” data seem old hat. Do they need to change, to include the endless, eye-opening “variables” of the women’s experiences? Lurking in the background is the sense that while the women seem oh so ready for transformation, the “suits” funding the drug trials have set boundaries around the study—and limits on just how much “enhancement” they want to sell.
But let’s not get lost in the weeds. The Pleasure Trials is a sexy show, not only in words, but in pulsing lights and private shadows, in a young woman’s ear-to-ear grin, and an older woman’s easy knowledge of her body as a “ready ocean.” There’s a slow, sexy arc between two characters we hope comes to a happy ending. Is the one graphic (if clothed) sexual encounter an intentional “jumping the line” jolt to that story line, or perhaps tonally a bit off? No objections to the scene, which is well handled—just a thought.
The Pleasure Trials is, in fact, a pleasure. Take your besties, take your spouse or partner—or go alone, dammit. It’s a freeing experience to watch a stage of women speak their minds, consider their options, and choose…for themselves.
WHEN: Through February 27
WHERE: 120 S. Main Street, Fort Worth