The rendition of Christopher Durang's dark comedy used shocking vulgarity to reveal society's tabloid obsession and the problem of gossip. Ian Billings/Mustang News

Kristine Xu
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The first half of “Betty’s Summer Vacation” could be summed up in three phrases: bloody gloves, disembodied voices and aggressive flashing.

Set during the ‘90s, “Betty’s Summer Vacation” aims to reveal America’s obsession with tabloid-style entertainment and the private (or not-so-private) lives of celebrities. Along with shriek-inducing events, no topic was too taboo for this rendition of Christopher Durang’s dark comedy.

English junior Karlee Benner played Betty, a ’90s-girl protagonist seeking refuge from the high stress of city life. In an attempt to relax during summer vacation, Betty and her friend Trudy rent a timeshare, completely unaware of the absurd occurrences about to unfold.

Benner pointed out how the play, which opened this past Thursday, brought light to how celebrities are treated.

“It’s interesting to see how (the play) correlates with real life,” Benner said, “and how a lot of time celebrities are just seen that their private lives can be publicized, even though they’re things that should be kept private.”

Betty, the sole voice of reason among a group of otherwise bizarre and outlandish characters, arrives at the beachside bungalow for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

One by one, each member of the household arrives. There’s Keith, a quiet and reserved man armed with an ominous hatbox and shovel; Mrs. Siezmagraff, the landlord and mother of Trudy; Buck, an unashamedly horny frat star; and Mr. Vanislaw, a flasher and lover of Mrs. Siezmagraff.

“Betty’s Summer Vacation” painted an honest portrait of America’s love affair with tabloids, such as Buck’s insatiable sexual conquests and the voice’s insistence for entertainment.

“That’s basically what Betty is to the voices,” Benner said. “The people in the house are the voice’s play things to do whatever they want.”

Sprinkled with profanity and punchy one-liners, the audience couldn’t help but laugh along with the voices in the ceiling. In the aftermath of the gruesome beheading and castration, Betty exasperatingly announces, “Now we have to sew on his penis and his head!”

Witnessing a sexual assault, two castrations and a deadly explosion, the audience is rocked to its core and left to contemplate our society and culture after the performance.

“It was an interesting combination of challenging material that was presented in a lighthearted manner, making it even more disturbing,” audience member Michael Carver said. “I appreciated the questions raised, specifically people’s suffering as a form of entertainment.”

And while all members of the household nonchalantly accepted the existence of the disembodied voices, the voices in the ceiling served as a laugh track and later as commentary for the various events in the house.

“The voices were interesting and a great addition to the show. It’s unique,” aerospace engineer sophomore Justin Fukada said.

Every time the laughter drifted from the ceiling, it set off a chain reaction of laughter from the audience, which made the laughing last even longer than expected.

“It’s weird because when you act and there’s only your director and people who have seen it a million times, they’re not going to laugh,” Benner said. “So it’s weird trying to fit in the flow of things with the laughter and waiting for the audience to stop talking so you can say your next line.”

There was no shortage of talent during the two-hour performance, and theater sophomore Sarah Gamblin’s monologue helped prove it. Her flip-flop between three differently accented characters during the trial was surreal to watch.

“It was a long process, but we worked on the different voices for each of them, which helped keep them straight in my mind,” Gamblin said.

The final scene starkly contrasts the rest of the play, where we find Betty, the sole survivor of the explosion, resting alone on the beach. It ends with her contemplating the events of the summer while listening peacefully to the ocean.

Looking back at her opening night performance, Benner said she was satisfied with the results.

“There are little things here where I’m like, ‘Shoot, I messed that up,’” she said. “But in the overall arch, I feel like we just all really clicked really well … You just feel really good about yourself when you finish, because you’re like ‘Yeah! That worked!’ even though there’s a few hiccups here and there.”

Over the course of many months, Cal Poly’s theater and dance department prepared for the large-scale production.

“Auditions were the first week of school, and then the week after that we started rehearsals, which are originally just Sunday through Thursday from 7-10 every night,” Benner said. “But then as it gets closer to the actual performance, it’s every single day from 6-11 p.m.”

As with any long-term project, the cast and crew of “Betty’s Summer Vacation” dedicated their waking moments of fall quarter to refining and perfecting their characters together.

“Being in theater together and being together for so many hours of the day, they end up being part of your family, and I haven’t gotten sick of anyone yet, so that’s good,” Benner said. “They’re all really good people and really talented. It’s really impressive.”

“Betty’s Summer Vacation” will run again Nov. 20, 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. at the Alex and Faye Spanos Theater. Tickets are $12 for students and $20 for the general public.

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