Staged Deaths

Don Juan
15 HEAD--a theatre lab

Breast men: Kelly Hilliard loves 'em and leaves 'em in 15 HEAD's Don Juan
Breast men: Kelly Hilliard loves 'em and leaves 'em in 15 HEAD's Don Juan

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A Day in the Country
Teatro del Pueblo

"Why can't women fuck like men?" asked 15 HEAD director Julia Fischer (according to the program notes). The question then followed, "Why are there no female sexual heroes?" Out of Fischer's ruminations comes a new Don Juan--with breasts. Meet Shanghai Lily, sexplorer, and a tale that's distinctly "hers."

Her stage is awash in crimson, formed by the soft lines of lush draping and a floor like crushed velvet. Two of the curtains are tied back at upstage center to form a small, ovular entrance. The plush stage beckons: Hello. I am the inside of a vagina. Come in. And come in they do. The men that is--Johnny A through Johnny E, all fedora-clad dicks from Movieville, with wide-eyed, fast-talking dames at their sides.

Lily (Kelly Hilliard) has blown into town, and now "desire hangs in the air like wet linens in August." She seduces Johnny A (with some particularly naughty dialogue straight out of Double Indemnity). And she promptly dies, which was the requisite fate in the era's movies for girls who liked sex. Cue music: The Movievillers break into a space-age line dance. Blackout. Lily reappears, seduces Johnny B (with some particularly naughty dialogue...), and dies anew. Blackout. Lily reappears, seduces you-know-who.... Narrative is, um, loose here, and the play doesn't build to a cumulative climax. Instead, it's just a series of episodes--spasms, say, little deaths.

For better or worse, we get pleasure from narrative. We are addicted to its patterns of rise and fall. Addictions can be broken, but the alternative had better be good. Sometimes 15 HEAD's is, as in a stunning dance of anger between Leif Jurgensen and Kat Bottorff; a witty, Gidget-y monologue by Jaidee Forman; and a macabre Macarena-like dance of liberation by the entire company. But, on the whole, such spectacle doesn't distract us enough from jonesing for a story. Perhaps it's the repetition, or a simple lack of clarity. It could be that creating a female sexual hero is harder than anyone figured.

So, why aren't there any female sexual heroes? Well, when would the culture have glorified, even welcomed, a female Don Juan? Indeed, the Gal Friday dames here look at Lily's conquests not as an example to follow, but as a threat; she is, after all, stealing their Johnnys. Lily's set role, as (breasted) hero, is to liberate--and in a sense she does: As she exits, Lily leaves for the dames a haze of desire in the air. Lily, all in all, is a sexual hero in a particularly squishy way; her presence actually empowers her gender. In this telling, the female hero can't get away with the old love-'em-and-leave-'em. Because in Movieville, the dames still need rescuing.

Lights illuminate the stark gray flats into a sea of reds and purples. Griselda Gambaro's A Day in the Country is beginning. Carnival music plays. Shadows of children appear. They squeal in pigtails, jump rope, play ball, and tumble down the slide behind the center screen. Lights flash. A loud bang. Stillness. The form of a lifeless child inches down the slide with a slow, sickening whisshhhh. Then another. And another.

Clearly this is no day in the country. As each body slithers down, a sort of nausea sets in and doesn't cease for the next two hours. Which raises the question: Just because a play is sickeningly affecting, does that make it good?

Martin (Benjamin Frass), a genteel man in a business suit, has come to manage finances for Frank (Jamison Haase), a slippery man in a pseudo-Nazi uniform. Frank runs a "camp," and he soon begins dropping hints about just what kind of a camp it is he's running.

Martin: What is that awful smell?

Frank: Oh, it's the garbage incinerator.

Martin: But it doesn't smell like garbage, it smells like...meat.

Frank: It's probably the children burning animals. You know how cruel children are. They burn them alive--dogs, cats, and children...uh, children burn the dogs.

Frank's own private concentration camp operates somewhere, sometime (Vietnam war era?), somehow, for some reason. We stay in our seats despite the atrocities enacted onstage--out of reverence for this topic, and out of the need to find answers, explanations, meaning. It is hard to imagine anyone stirring up the gut-wrenching cultural memory of the Holocaust in such brutal detail without a deeply felt purpose: Lest we forget, lest we think it couldn't happen again...

But in this production, no questions are answered, no context given. All the play serves to do is horrify: We blanch as one emaciated woman trembles at the mention of a shower; as we hear Frank intimate just what he hunts in the woods (hint: he likes to leave the camp's gates open); and as we see Martin on the floor, broken, beaten, and writhing to the jaunty strains of "Sing, Sing, Sing." Could it be that the specter of these horrors has been raised only for the sake of drama? At what point does this move from invoking the spirit of Artaud's Theater of Cruelty to just being cruel?

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