Lindsay Austen and James Oblak in "Outfoxed"

Lindsay Austen and James Oblak in “Outfoxed”

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs — the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate — of the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” — Lolita

Amanda Knox, who was convicted of murdering her English roommate while they were students in Perugia in 2009, and who was acquitted on appeal and returned to her Native Seattle in 2011, is scheduled to publish her memoir of the event on April 30, 2013. News reports say she will be paid four million dollars for the story, much of which will go to pay off debts she acquired in her legal defense. Her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, has just published a memoir that purports to tell his side of the story. Not surprisingly, Sollecito claims he and Knox were just kids who were badgered by the corrupt Italian police and judiciary into giving false witness against themselves.

Knox’s erstwhile roommate Meredith Kercher is still dead. By turning Knox’s true tabloid story into dramatized fiction, Lucy Gillespie’s play Outfoxed seeks to give voice to three marginal characters: Knox’s mother, the Italian state (personified as female), and Meredith Kercher.

The lights go up on Joan Maddox, a middle-aged woman who is celebrating a promotion with her workmates. She has made them zabaglione, and they bond over their shared American inability to pronounce the dessert’s name. Then a call from Italy tells her Alyssa, her daughter, is in serious trouble.

Joan flies to Italy to save her baby and is offended repeatedly by the foreignness of the Italians. They don’t understand justice, they don’t understand motherhood, and most annoyingly of all, they don’t understand English. When the female Italian police chief Donatella tells Joan that Alyssa has been accused of murdering her roommate Melissa, Joan is simply gobsmacked. Not her baby, she says; not her little girl.

As the play unfolds Alyssa and her mother come to a reckoning over Alyssa’s flowering womanhood and the trouble it seems to have caused. The action progresses by way of Alyssa’s extended confession to her mother. The mea culpa — Alyssa’s elaborate description of the events of the night of the murder — and the dramatic action share a ritualistic, incantatory character, overwhelming her mother’s efforts to find some other reasonable explanation for the murder. Joan tries to get Alyssa to charge her boyfriend with rape, and when that fails Joan tries to accuse Desmond, Alyssa’s black, male boss, because all the world knows a white, female life is more valuable than a black man’s.

Donatella is also a mother, and she tries to explain to Joan the Italians’ outrage over Alyssa’s behavior. Women, she tells Joan, live in a circumscribed space within a world that belongs to men. Despite what American style feminism says, sexual freedom is not an expression of individuality; it is a betrayal of sisterhood to gain the approval of men. Underneath Donatella’s outrage is an undercurrent of anti-Americanism. America the beautiful is also America the ugly, the soldier (male) at Abu Ghraib who commits atrocities on the feminized and subjected peoples of the world.

Melissa is smart, honest, and painfully English. Brandi Bravo, who plays Melissa, is tall, curvy, and charming — in a word, hot. Ms Bravo does an excellent job portraying the girl who is very hot and very self-conscious, the one who goes to great lengths to hide the hot because she doesn’t trust the boys and feels quite uncomfortable with their testosterone fueled advances. Alyssa, in contrast, is a cross between Lolita and Juliette. Alyssa’s sexual prowess, her adventurousness and shamelessness lead her to conclude that the passive kind of femininity practiced by Melissa is an impediment to her goals, the most sublime of which is to live suspended in the moment right before orgasm.

The play may want to give voice to the voiceless, but the logic of identity politics, which is the game Alyssa plays from beginning to end, draws our attention to the most vibrant individual at the expense of more righteous or deserving voices. Though Gillespie deliberately depicts Alyssa as a shallow, cruel, and opportunistic American striver, her character dominates the stage. This is partly because actor Lindsay Austen’s sexual aura is palpable. In the erotic S & M scenes her energy irradiated the audience like high voltage wires causing dark tumors to swell in the trousers of many. It is also because the only winners in identity politics are shameless self-promoters who can scream “look at me!” the loudest.

The drama comes to crisis when Alyssa, Melissa, the Italian boyfriend Damiano, and the black man Desmond engage in a hashish fueled fourway. Melissa, ever the wilting flower, is the center of attention, and Alyssa realizes that the archetypal female understanding of sex as a passive activity, waiting for someone else to give you an orgasm, is for losers. And so, Alyssa literalizes her symbolic phallus in cold steel to destroy Melissa’s symbolic feminine weakness. The plot leads us to conclude decisively that Alyssa (Amanda) did it — she murdered her roommate in a sado-orgasmic fury.

Much criticism of Lolita at the end of the last century sought to prove that Lolita is rendered voiceless by Humbert Humbert. The lolita in Outfoxed is not of that genealogy. Outfoxed retains the puerility of the comedic novel of manners that Nabokov and Sade pariodied, the appearance of a cautionary tale warning girls not to act impudently. There is an undercurrent of catty judgment, of wanting to seem fair, if not to be fair, that informs it. But in the end Outfoxed is not a denunciation of American imperial hubris, or crass, materialistic American culture, or the hypocrisy of American style identity politics; it is a celebration of those things.

After all Alyssa’s sins have been exposed to the bright fluorescent light that in the final scene appears to represent justice (or perhaps knowledge), Mommy pardons her — and the play has a happy ending.

Through December 16th
@ Access Theater