The Appointment, the new piece by Philadelphia’s Lightning Rod Special (last seen in NYC with the Obie-winning Underground Railroad Game) bills itself as “a musical satire about the American abortion debate.” Nonetheless, about a third of is a quietly devastating, painstakingly realistic real-time depiction of the process a woman goes through to get an abortion in certain (unnamed) U.S. states: the medical tests; the required presentation of specific (often incorrect) information about the risks and the consequences; the payment; the waiting period; the procedure itself. The drumbeat of the doctor’s repetition of “I am required by law to tell you” grows sickening, then sad. But it also highlights the calm compassion of medical providers whose internal rage at some of the absurdity we can almost feel, and the unutterable patience required by the women themselves. (The central woman we follow, Louise, played by the piece’s lead creator, Alice Yorke, faces all the hurdles with a kind of deliberative stillness; she has no doubt at all.)
Most of the rest of it is a farcical screwball cabaret performed by an ensemble of seven performers dressed as fetuses (Jill Keys’s costumes, like so much else about the piece, are simultaneously absurd and creepy). They sing musical numbers that are often spot-on pastiches of Broadway genres (composed by Alex Bechtel), dance, exhort audience members to play games with them, and walk the extremely fine line where adorable curdles into saccharine, with a frequently disturbing dash of sexy thrown in. They’re raging embodiments of insatiable need—for attention, for nutrition, for the central role in the debate about reproduction that pushes adult woman aside. (The “feed us/fetus” near-homonym plays a frequent role here.)
The two stylistic realms meet (sort of) in a lengthy scene toward the end of the piece, where the fetus-garbed performers enact an archetypal American family Thanksgiving a la Neil Simon—passive-aggressive mom (a pitch-perfect Brett Ashley Robinson); two twenty-something daughters, one bringing her boyfriend home for the first time; crotchety grandpa and overly hearty dad—that’s visited by some sort of possessed turkey spirit. (I confess I still don’t entirely understand how this scene fits into the whole, other than presenting another angle on the way American culture idealizes the patriarchal nuclear family. The scene is weirdly compelling, mining a deep vein of irony in the sheer incongruity between the fetus suits and the aw-shucks domestic drama, but goes on perhaps too long. Still, in its homeyness, it forms an instructive pairing with another scene, a plaintive ballad comprising the “testimonials” of women who regret abortions, sung with even-more-excoriating irony by the three male medical professionals from the abortion clinic—Scott R. Sheppard, Jaime Maseda, and Brenson Thomas.)
The balance the show strikes between over-the-top absurdity and stripped-down realism is a tricky one, and though the contrast is part of the point, sometimes it feels like the governing principle is “more is better” when a little more shape might have sharpened the impact. Nonetheless, enormous credit is due to director Eva Steinmetz and the entire ensemble, who switch back and forth between two entirely different genres of performance with crispness and command. In addition to Yorke, Scott R. Sheppard, as the doctor in the abortion clinic, is particularly good in the realist sections; Brett Ashley Robinson and Lee Minora hit the highest/creepiest notes as fetuses, particularly in the “sexy fetus” scene, where they try to pick a “dream daddy” out of the audience for one of their fellow female fetuses—someone who finds her “hot” and would change her dirty diaper. (And special mention to Katie Gould, who gives the possessed turkey/fetus in the Thanksgiving scene an unsettling quality that would fit a horror movie…which, in many ways, this resembles.)
While The Appointment is about the abortion debate, it’s not interested in either presenting “both sides” of the argument or depicting it as a fair fight; the piece lives in the real world where the technical constitutional protection guaranteed by Roe v. Wade means increasingly little in practical terms. Its satirical barbs are focused squarely at the prevailing American cultural norms that sanctify motherhood and make abortion legal, but stigmatized and often almost impossible. Lightning Rod Special describes the piece as “an act of pure entertainment with no mental or emotional engagement required that will leave you feeling full of joy and light (this dangerously satiric cabaret demands a reexamination of your deeply internalized participation in a patriarchal culture).”
Some of its most unsettling, because most unfamiliar, material is about the monstrosity of pregnancy, and also the creepy way in which it’s sexualized. At the same time it takes some real risks in creating these fetus characters endowed with agency; at times in trying to showcase the absurdity of treating these beans (the size of “an olive,” “a binder clip,” “a cherry”) as persons they sometimes overlap a little too neatly with the type of anti-abortion propaganda they’re satirizing.
Still, it’s the non-satiric parts of the piece that, in the end, really hit home, in their simplicity and their quiet commitment to showing rather than telling. In its Philadelphia premiere, the show was accompanied by additional programming that provided opportunities for audiences to get involved in reproductive justice work in Philadelphia. I wish they’d continued that initiative here, to tie the thoughts stirred by the piece to action in our own communities.