BACK STAGE WEST
March 26, 1998
at Ivy Substation
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Most critics, myself included, have been guilty of playing a politically correct game of bait-and-switch: When a play comes along that actually offends us with explicit violence or transgressive sexual material (or a combination of both), we find every possible way to avoid saying so, lest we appear hopeless philistines or prudes. Instead we point out its structural flaws, or we might go so far as to call it tasteless or pointless. And if we can find something wrong with the writer's attitude toward minorities, all the better.
But when a writer as prodigiously gifted as Erik Ehn sets his mind to the subjects of "eroticism and language"--the stated themes of the commission the theatre company Bottom's Dream gave him some years ago, which engendered the plays on this current program, as well as several others--it's not so easy to point to flaws in the writing. Ehn has a fertile, febrile prose style and an unforced sense of structure, an almost musical ebb and flow, that gives these pieces what little theatricality they possess. When Bottom's Dream, along with Seattle's Annex Theatre and Dallas' Undermain Theatre, staged some of this work at Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre's Common Ground Festival in 1996, I found it exhilarating: Ehn's writing persuasively penetrated sexual explicitness and came out the other side with lyricism, wit, and genuine emotion.
Even so, after that performance, I spoke to an older woman who said she found the material so harsh she wanted to cry. Now I know how she felt. Perhaps it is a testament to the resilient power of mere words to move our emotions, but this intermissionless production of three-plus one-acts--Icarus, Leda, Three Day Jesus, and Lingerie--filled me with the kind of head-blazing, can't-look dread and disgust I felt the time I tried to watch an open-heart surgery.
Why the difference? James Martin's drily detached direction doesn't help. It's one thing to play these endlessly descriptive tales of sex between father and son, woman and goose, Jesus and goat, etc., with real emotional conviction, as did the Annex actors two years ago under Nikki Appino's direction, but to play them with extravagant, winking irony, as Martin has most of his actors do here, is to up the ante of confrontation--the element, already in the writing, of daring us to be shocked. We are, thanks.
Most of the actors are strong, within this limiting style: Jennifer Griffin shows the most range, Bonita Friedericy the most wit, Tom Sheppard the most fire, Cheryl White the most aplomb, Michael Morrissey the best deadpan. Martin makes a few attempts to theatricalize Ehn's prose--at one point employing bird-toy props in a silly pseudo-ballet parody of Swan Lake (but, strangely, to the overture of Der Rosenkavalier)--and he creates some striking images. But the combination of his nose-tweaking tone and Ehn's heavy, operatically explicit peroration makes this evening unbearable--for this philistine critic, anyway.
"Erotic Curtsies," presented by Bottom's Dream at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Mar. 12-Apr. 11. (310) 231-0446.