Review: The Skeleton Rep’s “Devices of Torture” (FringeNYC 2018)

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the entwining stories of four dynamic dominatrixes in Midtown Manhattan reveal how nearly everything political is about sex, sex is about power, and love isn’t the only thing that hurts.

Love hurts (Olivia Jampol & Miranda Poett // Credit: Daniel Gonzalez)

It’s 2016 and Olive (Isabella Jane Schiller), fresh out of school with student loans looming as high as Manhattan’s skyscrapers, needs to make some money. She’s done webcam work and phone calls before, but it might be time to move on up to the dungeons and become a dominatrix, live in the flesh. In the first scene of The Skeleton Rep’s FringeNYC production of Caroline Bennett’s second play Devices of Torture, Olive rehearses her introduction for her later interview. The venue? La Maison. The nerves? Oh, so there. Luckily for La Maison, young Olive is innocent and innocuous only on the surface.

The verdict? La Maison’s owner and head Mistress Danielle (Miranda Noelle Wilson), matronly and magnificently anti-bullshit, is impressed with Olive. After her interview, the new employee has a session with a regular client. It begins with a blindfold and ends with piss all over the floor — and on Olive’s face. The revelation? Olive understands where the guy was coming from. He was awfully alone and pitifully lonely, but for the forty-five or so minutes that they got down to business in the dungeon, they were both powerful in their own right. His erotic wishes were granted; she fulfilled her economic needs.

Meanwhile, two other dommes at La Maison are falling for each other and falling apart as they both work through their Post Election Stress Disorder. Ryan (Olivia Jampol) and Lila (Miranda Poett) are verging towards co-dependency, mostly fueled by a lack of clear communication about what each woman wants, needs, and thinks she wants and needs. They’ve seemingly seen it all while on the job, but the most elusive thing that they both deeply desire — whether or not they’re willing to vulnerably admit it out loud (yes for one; no for the other) — is to be seen and heard when in each other’s company, completely and without reserve or regret.

First day at the new job (Isabella Jane Schiller & Olivia Jampol // Credit: Daniel Gonzalez)

The most compelling usage of props in a show all about BDSM? Cell phones. In one scene, Lila is at home, ostensibly preparing for a night in and off the grid. Ryan is getting drinks — at the bar right around the corner from Lila’s. “Hey,” Ryan texts her crush. There’s waiting. There’s pacing. There’s looking back at her phone, as if gratuitous gazing will make that push notification appear with that long awaited ping. Lila eventually sees the text and responds back with those foolproof three letters: “Hey.” When Ryan sees that a reply has finally been delivered to her phone, her beaming is enough to melt the post-2016 cynic’s heart. In an indie production with a sharp script and starkly straightforward set, this simple scene of iMessage anxiety and casual coquetry only accentuates the incredibly effective acting of this insanely talented four-person ensemble.

One of the most encouragingly imaginative aspects of having four actors in a performance (see: The Glass Menagerie; A Doll’s House, Part 2) is the potentiality for fun permutations of one-on-ones. Character combinations abound in this play that are both fabulously funny and fiercely sexy, thanks to Ria T. DiLullo’s knowledge of how to best arrange her actresses. There are men in the world of Devices of Torture, of course, but there are no cisgender male actors. Why would there need to be? The four actresses onstage do a seamless job in transitioning between their Mistress roles and their straight male counterparts. When you head out to Christopher Street on a Saturday evening for some live performance, you best believe that the gender-bending is going to be ballsy.

In a number of scenes, for instance, Ms. Schiller portrays a banal-looking fellow in a fleece jacket and khaki pants and the most heinous hat of all American time. He’s got a secret, as well as an abhorrent amount of pent-up anger at the daily sight of other people on the streets weeping, panicking, and preparing to rise up and rebel. This objectively terrible character is played with such respect for subtlety that his divulgement of devilish opinions truly proves to be surprising — and scary. In Ms. DiLullo’s world, there’s no room for caricature or clichés. That would be too easy for audience agreement, discouraging viewers from critical thinking. Rather than smug satisfaction at seeing someone getting punished for such a warped and wicked political ethos, I felt both infuriated and inspired. Some people don’t wear their biases on their sleeves — they’re too filled with tricks, waiting for the opportune time to unleash their revolting rhetoric — but just because you can’t immediately see the problem doesn’t mean that you can ever believe the battle will be over. It’s only just begun. And so we march on, fighting each day for all things female.

When things get complicated, it’s obvious that the writer, director, and actors have gone to great lengths to take care of the complexities that certain scenes call for. In particular, I found myself mesmerized by Ms. Poett’s capacity to unleash utter rage through her characters that felt collectively understood. When a cross-dressing client enters his session, Lila begins to disclose the pains of not just having a period, but having to hide it from the world, as if it is shameful for a woman’s body to go through its miraculously natural processes while not being pregnant. She also delineates the merciless regimen of beauty and self-care that feels so demoralizingly exhausting and self-deprecating on the daily: what it takes to have the perfect hair, the most flawless figure, etc. Her client smirks and laughs, and Lila continues her domme roleplaying, this time with more (rightful) vengeance. She teaches him a lesson by ordering Olive to impart physical pain on him, but it is the psychological sadism that causes him to use his safe word. I couldn’t help but wonder how effective even just this scene alone could be in educating men, and I don’t exclusively mean the ones who voted the oft-accused sexual assaulter into office. I’m also thinking of the men who claim to be our allies, who impossibly “understand” what we women are going through, particularly during these triggering recent weeks. These are the men who like to self-mythologize for being bare-minimum decent and feel proud of being on the right side of history; I say that they should refrain from chatting for just an hour and a half, sit down, and watch the women do the walking, talking, and trailblazing onstage and IRL.

I saw this performance with my friend Miri, who celebrated the show’s portrayal of a lesbian couple. Ms. Jampol is a force to be reckoned with, particularly engaging when her relationship scenes start to get #real. I would prefer to restrict myself from spoiling too much of her character’s romance with Lila, except to say that your heart will break and your breath might even momentarily stop as Ryan’s emotions erupt like a volcano, intense honesty flying out with such ferocity, you might even feel pushed, post-show, to tell your loved ones just how much they mean to you — and what it is exactly that you need from them during troubling times.

The one aspect of this production that took some while to grow on me were the monologues directed at the audiences. I am often skeptical of theatrical soliloquies, especially in this day and age of — well, you know, texting “Hey” to a special someone. I was suspicious and began to anticipate expository spoon-feeding, and it is often my experience that such frank addresses to the audience in an already politically charged production may feel too on the nose, however audaciously. But Ms. Wilson was fearless in her character’s candidness, addressing the audience head-on not just from the stage, but also in the aisle of the house. She looked many of us dead in the eye while telling us — never once with lecture vibes or self-serving haughtiness — of how she became a small business owner, of how the President-Elect and all that he represents made her feel afraid, and how that dismay metamorphosed into purpose, and how that determination created a community of fellow females who whipped for work during the day and drank red wine while making rally signs at night. I caught myself feeling so hesitant to take in these characters’ soliloquies, then gently reminded myself that these are the stories we don’t hear often enough but are always craving. Such straightforward storytelling is a treasure, and I was grateful that it was not the dommes’ line of work that was glorified, but their personalities and personas that were hailed and honored. I was empathetic to their outrage and, in particular, the Head Mistress’s urges for action against the patriarchy. I felt pride in my discontent with the daily news, my indignation with this administration, and my refusal to shut the fuck up. From Jess Zimmerman’s Slate article included above:

Learn to be a bitch. Be angry, even if you aren’t allowed. Be ruder than you think you can be (without losing your principles). If they say feelings don’t matter, turn your feelings into a weapon. Never shut up. Never stand down.

Zimmerman continues: “This is not ideal; it is functionally a commitment to escalation, when in fact everyone should take a damn seat. But it’s one of the only options available when there are two rigidly outlined groups, and one of them has written the rules so that the rules don’t apply to them.”

In the daring, delightfully scintillating, and damn tantalizing Devices of Torture, the women have grown tired of waiting on the world to change. Ain’t nobody got time to sit back and relax and regret missing out on being a part of a revolution — the resistance. These dommes are making their own rules, and you better have thick skin, a whole lotta wit, and a big heart to play the game.

The dommes of La Maison (Isabella Jane Schiller, Miranda Noelle Wilson, Olivia Jampol, Miranda Poett // Credit: Daniel Gonzalez)

Presented by The Skeleton Rep. Written by Caroline Bennett. Directed by Ria T. DiLullo. Starring: Olivia Jampol, Miranda Poett, Isabella Jane Schiller, & Miranda Noelle Wilson (appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association).

Devices of Torture makes its New York City debut at the International Fringe Festival, located at 685 Washington Street (at Charles Street) in Manhattan’s West Village. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. $22 tickets are available for advance purchase HERE. Dates & showtimes are as follows:

Monday, October 15th, at 9:45pm

Saturday, October 20th, at 6:30pm

Sunday, October 21st, at 5:30pm

Monday, October 22nd, at 9:00pm

Support and learn more about The Skeleton Rep and its productions HERE.