Sex Offender

Penumbra stumbles with jumbled diary

The fact that many Americans travel to south Asia in order to, as one character in Sex Diaries of an Infidel puts it, perv, is a nasty one, full of all sorts of resonance against history's backdrop of imperialism and exploitation. It might, one would think, be the stuff of a good and provocative show. In this case, one would be resoundingly wrong.

The story opens with reporter Jean (Carolyn Pool) in repartee with photographer/boyfriend Martin (Sam L. Landman) about the trip to Manila they are about to take, one in which they plan to expose the gnarly sex trade in pictures and words (Jean, we learn in an opening snippet, has recently won an award for ostensibly altruistic, voice-of-the-downtrodden journalism). In walks Jean's sister Laura (Laura Esping), who Jean claims is mad beneath her placid surface. To recap what happens next will take some doing, unless City Pages sees fit to add a scroll to the bottom of this page. But here's a go: Once in Manila, Jean and Martin interview pimp Max (Phil Kilbourne, appealingly reeking of corruption) and pre-op transsexual Toni (Alexis Camins). Meanwhile, former junkie street hustler Tony (Casey Greig), the subject of Jean's award-winning writing, breaks into her apartment, facilitates her cat's escape, and seduces Laura. Stylized sex ensues, Martin sort of falls for Toni, and we get the hint that Max and Jean share a resoundingly unsavory and inexplicable sexual history.

I'll be your mirror: Alexis Camins in Penumbra's latest
Ann Marsden
I'll be your mirror: Alexis Camins in Penumbra's latest

Business is conducted on Loy Arcenas's spare set, composed of a few wooden beams and a versatile backdrop that shimmers at times and goes dead at others. Abetting the visuals is Mark Dougherty's busy and frequently nimble lighting. Both are reasonable solutions to Aussie Michael Gurr's script (first staged in Melbourne in 1992), which poses considerable difficulties. It feels more suited for television or film, with its short, choppy scenes and frequent shifts from location to location. Rarely are the actors afforded a chance to gather momentum, and for long stretches they're compelled to go idle and freeze in place while another section of the stage sees action.

Events creak onward when Jean returns home to confront Tony and in the process fouls up some errand for Max that we're later told costs him $750,000 (he gets over it remarkably quickly because, you see, logic has broken down by this point). Jean takes a moment to torture her sister, and turns out to be a fraud, a fabulist, and a thoroughgoing cynic. Pool does not navigate this difficult transformation. In a crucial scene in which she exposes Jean's charming Nietzsche-meets-Darwin belief system, Pool's blasé demeanor clatters against Landman's earnestness without us learning much about either character (Landman frequently seems perplexed and appalled, which is an appropriate enough reaction to this show). By the time Jean casts her lot with Max, we say fair enough, but it's a twist of randomness and not anchored by any emotional reality.

Camins gives a gutsy performance as a prostitute suspended between genders, and his scenes with Landman capture fleeting chemistry. But it's hard to escape the feeling that we're asked to buy a new take on the whore with a heart of gold, albeit of the prayerfully transcendent variety. After a strangely staged act of political violence, Toni gives up La Vida and joins a group of Filipino guerillas in the jungle. It was at precisely this point that I threw up my hands, both literally and metaphorically.

Director Ching Valdes-Aran's cast has no shortage of talent and craft, and it seems quite possible that things will gel in the course of this show's run and better chemistry might be found. Kilbourne in particular does nice work, with his loafers, his cheesy 'stache, and his open-necked shirt framing a characteristically subtle and presence-rife performance. But there is never a convincing sensation during this show that anyone onstage is fully connecting with anyone else or with the audience and, more to the point, no one up there seemed to be having very much fun on opening night. We'll chalk up this particular detour as a dead end.

 
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