Walking into a rehearsal where cast members wave and twirl massive sex toys should be shocking.

After a career as an entrepreneur, Yoel Wulfhart wrote and produced Cat-A-Strophe, his first attempt at theater since moving to the United States from Israel in 1975 as a drama student. The absurdist farce puts sex front and center. It's one of the offerings at this year's Fringe Festival, opening Thursday at the Papermill Theater.

"It's there in the script, the phallic imagery," said director Kevin Fennell, who joined the production after the first director quit. "And, so, that can at times be a little off-putting, that kind of production."

The plot tracks four lovers and focuses on one man's inability to perform in bed. Explicit carnal tensions serve as a metaphor for our inability to reach perfection in life, no matter our goals. "What's at issue here is the fact that we are all failures," Wulfhart said. "We cannot get it up. We cannot get anything up in our lives."

At Cat-A-Strophe's core is a discourse about gender roles in the 21st century, when tradition no longer aligns with reality. "There is a whole theme of, not only emancipation, but women being on top and men being subservient, and lost in a world in which we don't belong. We don't know what our role is anymore," Wulfhart said. "Over the centuries in history, we had a very definite role. Our role was to bring the food home, to protect our families, and I suppose that's it."

"We have no idea where we are," he said. "These women confuse the hell out of us."

As a solution, the male characters demean their partners, "trying to minimize their value," said Wulfhart, "because that's the only way we can survive."

Fennell acknowledged the material's outdated ideas.

"There's a lot of misogyny. The whole thing about this play is the objectification of women," he said. "It's an absurdist view of relationships, and so these men are treating women as sexual objects."

Fennell plans to broaden and highlight the disgust generated from misogynistic moments in the script, using logical extremes to point out gag-worthy tropes perpetuated by a society grounded in inequality.

"There's points of this where it's like, 'Man, this is how the '80s guys used to be. They'd just sit around talking about doing stuff to chicks," Fennell said. "And I don't know if we're more aware of misogyny, or care more about it now - I hope we do, and I hope we are - but it's almost off-putting, this play now."

Wulfhart also wants to emphasize that boys will be boys, as they say - the male psyche hasn't necessarily evolved alongside civilization.

"You know what, a pretty woman walks down the street, I'm going to look at her," he said. "This is, by nature, what we do. You expect us to behave differently, but we're not different."

For him, subtle changes in gender roles in the last century have toppled the established social order: "I believe that women are in charge. I think it's perfectly OK. It's just it's time to admit it.

"Men are not equal to women, no," he said. "Absolutely not. We [want] something you have, and we have nothing that you want. That's the difficult thing."

Taiwo Sokan, who portrays one of the female characters in Cat-A-Strophe, disagreed. "I'd want him to show me in what scenario I would ever be on top, as a black woman, ever," she said. "Ever."

In Sokan's view, the show's message goes beyond gender expectations and stereotypes to reach something more universal. "When people ask me what the play is about, I usually say it's the difference between what you actually want, what you think you want, and what you actually get in a relationship," she said.

"The point is to treat each other better," Fennell added. "See how these people are treating each other, and how they're not going anywhere in their lives by doing it."

THEATER

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Cat-A-Strophe

Opens Thursday. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday. Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St. $15. 215-413-1318, fringearts.com.EndText