In a unique collaboration last week, Raleigh Ensemble Players, in conjunction with Legends Nightclub, presented a staged reading of an early Eve Ensler play on the club’s dance floor: a serio-fantastic comedy, oddly (but appropriately) named Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man.

For those poor souls unacquainted with one of most idiosyncratic and important voices of the early 21st century, Ensler is the author/performer of the astonishingly successful (and OBIE-winning) solo piece The Vagina Monologues. Witty, engaged, unabashedly feminist-humanist in an entertainment world increasingly weak-kneed about such labels, Ensler plows the stature and profits with which her phenomenal achievement provides her into the V-Day foundation, generating hundreds of local productions annually and working toward a diminution of violence against women. Her position is a rare one as if Spaulding Gray had been cross-pollinated with Pete Seeger.

Political savvy is only half the story, however. It is Ensler’s dramatic gift to hone in on the sexuality of women, a field which, when explored at all, more generally yields yet another version of the storied femme fatale: avaricious whore, psychopath, slut, nymphomaniac, castrating bitch. Her great subject is men’s fear of female sexual power, the sort of terror which, in its extreme, leads to genital mutilation, rape, and an almost genocidal inclination to murder.

But Ensler is no mere polemicist, hectoring her audience with rhetoric. In Floating Rhoda, men and women grapple with each other and with their own profound uncertainties over sexuality, brutality, and gender identity. The women of the play struggle against the sexual stereotypes that bedevil a woman’s assured sexuality as masculine; the men fight against social imperatives to maintain decency in a society that challenges and belittles gentleness as effeminate. All the more appropriate, then, that Heather Willcox should eschew conventional venue in her staging of Floating Rhoda. Where better than a gay bar to challenge outmoded notions of sexual persona?

The invention, raw theatricality, and passionate involvement displayed by Willcox and her splendid cast frequently belied the fact of Floating Rhoda being a staged reading rather than a full production. The quartet of actors engaged in the play’s major roles gave performances of exceptional polish and aplomb, largely off-book; the thin line separating this reading from a completely realized production was little more than another week of studying lines.

Rhoda (Lynne Guglielmi) is involved in an unsettlingly masochistic relationship with the brutish Coyote (David Harrell) when she meets his polar opposite, the gentle artist Barn (Joe Brack). Initially rejected by Rhoda, Barn accepts the erotic invitation of the aggressive Storm (Andrea Maddox) and submits at Rhoda’s insistence to a blind date with her best friend Terrace (Sarah Kocz). Uneasily paired, Barn and Terrace recognize that both are in love with Rhoda, who is hospitalized after a shocking attack by the pithecanthropoid Coyote. Her attending physician turns out to be none other than Storm, who turns her sexual attention to Terrace while Rhoda switches allegiances to Barn. End of Act One.

This sounds in the re-telling more like spruced-up soap opera than cutting-edge theatre, and might be, but execution is all. Ensler studies these characters like specimens under a dramatist’s glass; the dialogue she provides for them is by turns poetic, humorous, devastating and formal. Take, for example, this knowing exchange between friends:

Rhoda: You never like my men.

Terrace: You don’t either, Rhoda!

With a single, perfectly aimed, funny/sad verbal blow, Ensler encapsulates Rhoda’s erotic and emotional predicament. (Although Ensler generally avoids contractions, which makes Terrace’s startled declaration about penises “I do not want one!” tremble on the verge of self-parody, the incantation of an erotic Dr. Seuss.)

The playwright engages a marvelously effective theatrical metaphor for her peculiarly modern personas in the use of Stand-Ins (Kelly Lowery for Rhoda, Thaddaeus Edwards for Barn). Her use of them requires the two to step back and observe their own behavior, separately and together. It’s a symbol of detachment that perfectly encapsulates the third-person aspect of modern urban existence call it by whatever absurd neologism you will (post-modern, post-Freudian, post-feminist!) The device is an essential one in Floating Rhoda, getting as it does to the heart of the characters’ dissatisfactions, frustrations, and neuroses: Rhoda somehow believes she deserves nothing better than Coyote; Barn, acting out of devotion, is troubled by the negation of his own self.

Willcox extrapolated from Ensler’s heady theatricality, making of her cast a bundle of bodies, wrapped around each other, shifting in slow motion, characters departing from the circle to play out their scenes and returning to it once they’d finished.

A play this rich, and a performance this exact, can lead a reviewer into the bog of verbosity, and I’ve waded in far enough already. But the climactic argument between Rhoda and Barn moved me, almost inexplicably, to tears. Rhoda’s description of her father’s abuse, however disturbing, somehow felt inevitable. More plangent was Barn’s anguished admission of the struggle to be a man without the brutality to which males are still unaccountably directed. It’s a tender issue with me, and Barn’s “Do you think […] my dad wanted a gentle boy?” got at something crucial and unresolved in the father-son dynamic that wracked me, perhaps because of my own father’s recent death.

The REP cast could scarcely have been bettered. Rhoda is no easy role she risks unpleasantness but Lynne Guglielmi united its many disparate colors. Sarah Kocz gave what is by now her standard performance, by which I do not mean predictable but fulsome: embracing contradictions, resolving them within herself, and presenting the results as though they have just occurred to her. David Harrell’s task was no easier than Guglielmi’s, since Coyote is so macho he stretches credulity. But the pathetic neediness Harrell came to in his last scene, conveyed largely through the eyes, leant the character some absurd humanity. Andrea Maddox gave a lush, febrile performance as Storm, especially in the long sequence of blissful sexual discourse between her and Terrace, in which much of her joy came from dropping her assigned gender role for perhaps the first time.

Most impressive of all was Joe Brack’s exquisitely limned performance as Barn. Brack exhibits, at an impossibly youthful age, pluperfect timing and expressive gesture, both of which reminded me, in their astounding fluidity, of David Henderson, arguably our finest local actor. Where does this come from, in one so young? In his superb novel Morality Play, Barry Unsworth describes the most gifted of a troupe of medieval players this way: “There was in Straw an instinct for playing, or rather a meeting of instinct and knowledge, a natural impulse of the body, I do not know what to call it, but it is something that can neither be taught nor learned.”

I don’t know what to call it either. But whatever it is, Joe Brack has it.

Raleigh Ensemble Players: Eve Ensler: