Disrupting Porn Fantasies: Midnights at the Electric Blue Angel

Photo by Jori Love, costume designer
Photo by Jori Love, costume designer

A new work written by Josh Hornbeck (Heavy Lay the Chains, The Beating of a Warrior’s Heart), Midnights at the Electric Blue Angel swivels a white-hot spotlight onto porn fantasies and reveals the abusive sexual objectification that lies beneath.

The play opens on two young people sipping coffee on a first date. Suddenly, a spotlight burns behind and above them. Suspended in darkness, a woman swirls her hips in a porn star-schoolgirl uniform. She invades the couple’s intimate, awkward exchange–and playwright Josh Hornbeck has literally set the stage for a showdown between a Bible college student’s exterior life and his private obsession with a porn star–a porn star who turns out to be nothing more than an angry, sexually innocent 17-year-old named Jenny Richards (Arika Gloud).

This is a play where the real-ness of women continually intrudes on male fantasy. And yet the men never fail to retaliate for those disruptions.  Jefferson (Jeremy R. Behrens), the Bible college student who at first sets out to rescue Jenny, eventually demands sex, telling her, “You owe me this… Don’t I deserve this?”

But male entitlement towards female bodies is only half of what makes the nightmare out of Midnights. In Hornbeck’s play, female passivity–the expectation that male rescue is the only escape–plays just as toxic a role as misogyny.

After her best friend Nicole has taken her in–no questions asked–Jenny says, “I wish someone would just fly me away from here.” Nicole (Justine Rose Scott) scoffs, barely masking her hurt. “What? I’m not good enough for you?” And we get the sense she isn’t. Not for Jenny, who spends the play asking about her absentee father and dreaming of knights in shining armor.

This dependency on men results in a permissiveness towards misogyny that seals Jenny’s fate. When Jenny’s mother (Madison Rengli) witnesses her boyfriend (Chip Wood’s slimy Rick) assault her own daughter, she confronts him with trembling hands. “Was that really necessary?” She asks. But when Rick explodes with rage and defends his behavior–talking as if her primary fear is not for her daughter, but for his fidelity–she is only too eager to believe him.

In nearly every scene, the play reminds its audience that we are complicit in misogyny every time we shrug off harassment and assault. “I’m not saying it’s right,” Jenny’s boyfriend (J. Woody Lotts) says, repeating the complacent view that abused women have heard too often. “It’s just the way it is.”

This is not an easy play to watch, but it’s not supposed to be. Gloud and Hornbeck represent rape’s aftermath more powerfully than anything I’ve yet seen–in either film or theatre. After a brutal rape, the lights rise, and we see Jenny,  cocooned in sheets at front stage left. She stares out at us from the floor, unblinking, catatonic, as the show goes on around her.

The play isn’t perfect. The opening scene drags a little, and I found myself wishing for more gradual transitions in a play where scenes too often overlap, forcing the audience to divide our attention. And at times, Jenny’s passivity feels excessive–why isn’t she angrier? It presents a challenge for Gloud’s quiet interiority–an emotional subtlety that would be better captured on film, with intimate closeups. But the dream sequences sprinkle in some exuberant, satirical humor, and the final moments will break your heart. Go see it.

**Disclaimer: The reviewer is dating the playwright. Yet I gained no kickbacks from writing this review. Not even a chocolate bar. And I don’t bother reviewing works I dislike, regardless of how much I love the author. But any concern for journalistic ethics–and my love life–is duly noted. Thank you.

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