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Review: To Revisit a Sexual Assault, She Drugs Herself Onstage

A decade ago, the Brazilian performer and director Carolina Bianchi was drugged and assaulted. In “The Bride and the Goodnight Cinderella” (“A Noiva e o Boa Noite Cinderela”), her new stage production at the Avignon Festival in France, she doesn’t merely open up about that experience. She relives part of it, night after night.

Bianchi slips a similar drug into a colorful cocktail and drinks it, with a sinister “Cheers.” She talks to the audience about art and trauma, waiting for the effects to kick in, then spends the rest of the show unconscious.

This all-too-real performance single-handedly jolted Avignon alive over the first week of the festival, turning Bianchi — an unknown, Amsterdam-based artist — into a sensation at the event. On the night I attended, one woman broke down in sobs on the way out. I felt nauseous at several points, as if “The Bride and the Goodnight Cinderella” had tapped into my own fight-or-flight instinct.

The show starts innocuously enough. Bianchi enters in a stylish white ensemble, and proceeds to deliver a lecture from a heavy stack of notes. From a desk, she examines sexual violence against women through the lens of art history, weaving in contemporary cases — chief among them the 2008 rape and murder of Pippa Bacca, a performance artist, as she hitchhiked in Turkey in a wedding dress as part of an artistic project.

“The Bride and the Goodnight Cinderella” may be a much safer form of performance art, but it doesn’t feel that way. Twenty minutes in, Bianchi starts drinking her cocktail. Before long, she is slurring her words and hunches over, then lies down on the table and loses consciousness.

For a few minutes, time stands still. We know nothing unplanned is likely to happen: According to the French news agency Agence France-Presse, Bianchi takes a mix of tranquilizers, rather than an actual date rape drug (known in Portuguese as a “Goodnight Cinderella”), and medics are on hand. Yet her vulnerability is scarily palpable.

After Bianchi is unconscious, the performance takes on a club-like atmosphere, with slinky chorography leading to sexual encounters that never look fully consensual.Credit…Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Then, for the next hour and a half, eight young members from Bianchi’s collective, Cara de Cavalo, take over. The backdrop rises to reveal another set, dotted with what appear to be bodies in various states of decomposition. The performers lie Bianchi down on a mattress next to them, and the atmosphere turns trippy, with loud distorted club music. Slinky choreography leads to sexual encounters that never look fully consensual.

Throughout, on screens above them, Bianchi’s words continue to roll. Her narrative isn’t one of healing: She repeatedly compares her need to revisit the assault to Dante’s journey into hell. “How dare they say that surviving is revenge?” the text reads at one point. “No act of catharsis overcomes the damage.”

The cast exercise real care toward the unconscious Bianchi. The group’s women are tasked with most of the physical manipulation, and their actions never mimic her assault. Yet one scene near the end would probably be too much to present in many countries. (In Avignon, viewers under 18 were “strongly discouraged” from attending.) Cast members spread Bianchi’s legs and insert a speculum and a small camera into her vagina, with a live video feed and in full view of the audience, as if to simulate a post-rape forensic examination.

Is this ethical? Your mileage may vary: As a director, Bianchi is in charge, even as she relinquishes physical control. Yet it is deeply unnerving to experience this scene, knowing that the main protagonist will have little to no memory of it, even as it lives on in the heads of hundreds of audience members. Her inability to remember her own assault, Bianchi explains earlier, haunts her to this day.

I hesitate to say “The Bride and the Goodnight Cinderella” should tour widely, because that means Bianchi, who wakes up looking dazed in the final few minutes, will keep putting herself through this ordeal. Still, the production, billed as the first chapter of a trilogy, is already scheduled to visit Belgium, Germany, Spain and Switzerland. And love it or hate it, it doesn’t flinch from an uncomfortable truth: Sometimes there is no safe space to be found from trauma.

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