On the opening night of 15 Head's production of Chéri, director Julia Fischer received two unexpected gifts from her cast. The first was a bouquet of flowers, delivered with a heartfelt speech. This was to be Fischer's last play with the company, cast member Leif Jurgensen explained to the assembled post-show audience, raising a plastic cup filled with wine.
Fischer, who co-founded 15 Head five years ago and established the company's unique, collective improvisation approach to generating plays, had decided she could not continue with the company. The reasons? The usual: She could not afford it any longer, and she wanted to spend more time with her family.
And so the opening night of Chéri ended with a bouquet and several toasts, which left Fischer flustered. She stared at the bouquet, astonished. It was an unexpectedly elaborate collection of long-stemmed, droopy tropical flowers, too large to carry with any comfort, rising waist-high when set on the ground and looking like a prop from some offbeat Argentinean tango melodrama.
The second gift, delivered privately, was just as surprising: A pair of handcuffs trimmed in pink faux fur. A joke, shared by the cast, with an appropriately elaborate story behind it. Early on in the development process for Chéri, Fischer and several other 15 Head company members were invited to lead a six-week residency at Sonoma State University, spending February and March of this past year teaching their unique theatrical method to the school's advanced acting students. They brought Chéri with them, already knowing that they wanted to create a stage adaptation of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette's 1920 novel of Parisian gigolos and demimondaines. Sonoma was to be something of a workshop for the play, with the students performing their own version at the end of the six-week residency.
Among the dozens of exercises developed by Fischer is one that involves collage, in which the performers go home and construct their own assemblage of items that remind them of the play they are developing. One student brought in an old photograph, a recording of a love song, and a pair of pink faux-fur trimmed handcuffs. The photograph, she explained, was old, because the story was old. Chéri is also a love story, telling of the troubled relationship between an aging courtesan and a fey, beautiful young man--thus the love song. And the handcuffs? Well, the student explained, the book deals with "fancy sex."
Cast member Leif Jurgensen found himself unaccountably tickled by this, and he peppered the student with questions. "What do you mean by 'fancy sex'?" he asked. "Do you mean bondage? S&M?"
"No," the student answered blithely. "Just fancy sex."
"Some of those students found a way of doing theater that they are going to want to do for the rest of their life," Chéri cast member Jon Micheels Leiseth said, summarizing the residency. "But some found a style of theater that they are never going to want to do again."
Colette published some 15 volumes of writing, most of it transparently autobiographical, much of it obscure outside of France. But there is something inherently theatrical in her writing, thanks in no small part to her own longtime involvement in the French music hall, which she documented in her novels. She wrote of flamboyant characters in arch, sexually charged relationships, and her cast drew from the Parisian twilight world of decadent millionaires, dissolute opium fiends, and grandes cocottes. Her two Chéri novels (Chéri and La Fin de Chéri) span the period of World War I, detailing a lost fin de siècle French world where highly mannered, near-courtly social behavior rubbed uneasily against a newer, brusquer sort of manners. Chéri, Colette's self-absorbed, vapid, beautiful protagonist, stands squarely between these worlds.
The 15 Head production places Chéri's story on a series of staggered, slanted, elevated stages, designed to look like a triptych by Mark Rothko: a series of three angular strips of color, red, white and black. The elevated stage furthest from the audience comes equipped with footlights, and the earliest scenes in the story play out on this stage, including the scene that opens Colette's book. Chéri (here played by Jim Bovino, making his character an essay in shallow vanity) has wrapped himself in the pearls of his lover, an older woman named Léa (Jaidee Forman, playing her role authoritatively, snapping out strict reprimands to her young paramour). Chéri and Léa must constantly avail themselves of Chéri's vapid courtesan mother and her gaggle of daft friends.
Chéri's mother is played by Jon Micheels Leiseth in drag, his face a mask of white pancake makeup, eyes wide and mad, always underlit from the footlights, looking like a lithe, transvestite Tor Johnson emerging from the grave in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Most of the female friends are likewise played by male cast members in drag, outfitted with overstuffed bodices and bustles. They trade empty comments with each other while pirouetting on one foot and gesturing in tandem with their teacups.
Chéri and Léa's relationship is staged with a sumptuousness rarely seen on Twin Cities stages. They bicker good-naturedly over money while moving through a series of coital postures, a pattern of erotic motion that they repeat every few minutes, regardless of their surroundings or even the subject of discussion. But Chéri's mother has arranged a marriage between her son and a wealthy neighbor's daughter, played by Kat Carrol as almost entirely empty of personality. The girl rides around on a bicycle in a white bodice and pantaloons, wearing an oversized straw hat, grinning broadly and waving eagerly. Chéri, greedy for the girl's money, accepts this arranged marriage, setting in motion the remainder of the play.