Whether it took the form of a wife-sleeping-with-her-husband’s-best-friend heterosexual affair, newly discovered (or unrequited or consummated or lost) lesbian relationships, or a bestial liaison with something that looks like Bigfoot’s cousin, sex fairly oozed from the stages of Actors Theatre of Louisville during this year’s Humana Festival. Why was sex—not just the physical act, but sexual identity and sexual politics as well—so critical to this crop of American playwrights? Is it the national obsession it appears to be?
Some of the Kentucky festival’s 10 playwrights seemed to be trying to forge a connection between the personal terrain of human bodies and the larger political landscape. But in most of their plays that connection remained tenuous, and the personal—as engaging and even titillating as it may be to explore—turned out to be merely personal after all.
“I am a one-breasted, menopausal, Jewish, bisexual, lesbian Mom and I am the topic of our times,” Susan Miller says in her one-woman show about breast cancer, My Left Breast. But the pain underlying Miller’s appealing monologue comes not so much from the loss of the breast as from the loss of her lover, Franny. “I miss it, but it’s not a hand,” she says early in the show. “I miss it, but it’s not my mind…It’s not my courage or my lack of faith. I miss it—but it’s not her.” Later she says, “I miss it, but I wouldn’t have to if anyone paid attention to women’s health care.”
But Franny fascinates Miller far more than women’s health care, and it is her attachment to this lost lover that she returns to again and again. At the end Miller reveals her mastectomy scar to the audience. It is a powerful moment. There’s no doubting Miller’s bravery or conviction, but despite her nods towards solidarity with other breast cancer victims, this is clearly one individual’s story.
The working-class heroine of Wendy Hammond’s Julie Johnson is also struggling against the odds. As she tells her best friend Claire (Carolyn Swift) early in the play, “I don’t wanna be stupid no more.” Julie (Lily Knight) dumps her abusive, alcoholic husband and enrolls in a computer class, then takes an even bigger step by admitting that she’s in love with Claire—who returns her affection but cannot stand the social stigma of being called a “dyke.” A crowd-pleaser at the festival, Julie Johnson was considerably enlivened by Jon Jory’s animated direction, its inventive set changes (by stagehands who popped up as if by magic in closets and behind doors to matter-of-factly hand coats, suitcases, etc. to the actors) and the performances of Swift and Knight. Hammond wisely stuck to her strengths—characterization and comic dialogue—without trying to make Julie or Claire emblematic of Women’s Issues.
The highlight of the festival was Tony Kushner’s long one-act, Slavs!: Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, composed mostly of outtakes from Perestroika, the second part of Angels in America. Kushner has the rarest of playwriting gifts: the ability to write about large issues without becoming pedantic. He has a way of making audiences think and laugh at the same time. Set in Moscow in 1985 and in Siberia in 1992, the play is populated by apparatchiks and Politburo members (one of whom, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, actually talks himself to death); a young woman security officer who guards Lenin’s brain; her lover, a female pediatric oncologist; a little girl suffering from an unknown disease, the result of nuclear contamination of her village; and the child’s angry Lithuanian mother.
Kushner’s lesbian lovers (played by Mary Schultz and Kate Goehring) are not only the sexiest pairing of the festival, they also think about the sociopolitical implications of their love. After a lingering kiss, Bonfila (Shultz) says, “Sexual deviance is symptomatic of cultures of luxury, in which monied classes cultivate morbid fascinations with biological functions, especially sex, tending towards narcissistic, anti-social, unproductive behavior…Anyway I don’t believe in lesbians, I believe in the working class as the only repository for real historical agency.”
In the final scene of the play, the child, Vodya, unable to speak in life, goes to heaven and makes up for lost time in a discussion of socialism with Prelapsarianov and his comrade Upgobkin. “The socialist experiment in the Soviet Union has failed, grandfathers,” she tells them. “And what sense are we to make of the wreckage? Perhaps the principles were always wrong. Perhaps it is true that social justice, economic justice, equality, community, an end to master and slave, the withering away of the state: These are desirable but not realizable on the earth.” Upgobkin responds with the question “which challenges us to both contemplation and, if we love the world, to action: What is to be done?”
Supremacy of the Male Libido
Phyllis Nagy’s Trip’s Cinch shared cast members and Lisa Peterson’s lucid direction with Slavs!, but suffered somewhat from being on the same bill with the most-anticipated work of the festival. Nagy nonetheless took on with depth an issue often trivialized in tabloid and CNN headlines: “date rape,” and its personal, financial and media implications. Written as a response to David Mamet’s Oleanna, Trip’s Cinch examines the case of a wealthy businessman, Benjamin Trip (Steven Culp), who is accused of raping Lucy Parks (also played, luminously, by Mary Schultz). After Trip has been acquitted of the crime, they are both interviewed by a Camille Paglia-type academic, Val Greco (Barbara Eda-Young), who is best known for her theories on the “supremacy of the male libido and the necessity for its unfettered appetite.” In the final scene, the audience witnesses the meeting between Trip and Parks which initiated the crime, alleged or actual—but Nagy offers no pat answers and no easy sympathies.
There are few such shades of gray in Jon Lipsky’s The Survivor: A Cambodian Odyssey, adapted from Haing Ngor’s book. The Survivor deals purely with good, embodied by Ngor’s wife (Yunjin Kim), and evil, in the form of Khmer Rouge informant Pen Tip—a character with a striking resemblance to Jonathan Pryce’s Engineer from Miss Saigon, and similarly played by an Anglo actor (Mark W. Conklin). Despite the pathos of Ngor’s tale (which builds convincingly, under the direction of Vincent Murphy, as the play goes on), The Survivor never evokes the wider scope of the Cambodian holocaust portrayed so chillingly in The Killing Fields, the Roland Joffe film in which Ngor starred.
Tina Landau’s skillfully choreographed 1969 is the story of one gay teenager, Howie Raskin, his confused coming-of-age in narrow-minded suburbia and his liberating escape to Greenwich Village. Utilizing live guitar music and recorded classic ’60s tunes, Landau frames the piece with a clip from a Dick Cavett television interview with Janis Joplin, who talks about her upcoming high school reunion. “They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state,” Janis says. “So I’m goin’ home.” Howie’s story ends more happily than Janis’s did, when a kindhearted Village drag queen takes him under her wing.
A State of Flux
In Jon Klein’s “eco-fable” Betty the Yeti, the characters’ names tell the tale: there’s Iko (pronounced eco), a Japanese forest ranger; Clare Kutz, a logger; Trey Hugger, an environmentalist…you get the idea. The climax of the show is the discovery of a baby Yeti, the love-child of a sort of abominable snowman with breasts (played with relish by Carolyn Swift) and unemployed logger Russ T. Sawyer (Stephen Yoakam). The implications of the birth are unclear—but the appearance of the baby Yeti does get a hearty laugh, which seems to be the playwright’s chief intention.
Romulus Linney’s Shotgun and Marion McClinton’s Stones and Bones deal with the more familiar territory of human-to-human heterosexual relationships. Linney’s drama starts out with genial discussions about adult sexuality and individual choice and ends with a movie-of-the-week explosion: The disgruntled husband shoots his father and mother while they’re having sex, (probably) thinking he’s shooting his cheating wife having sex with his best friend. The audience has the same feeling as the next-door neighbor interviewed on the evening news after an inexplicable act of violence: “We never saw it coming.”
McClinton’s 10-minute play Stones and Bones, which he also directed, takes a look at language and stereotypes in the African-American war between the sexes. In simultaneous scenes, a young black couple, Mister Bones and Sistuh Stones (Timothy D. Stickney and Stacy Highsmith), dressed in colorful hip-hop fashion, come together, and a middle-aged “Buppie” couple (Terry E. Bellamy and Fanni Green) fall apart. The street language of the younger couple gradually becomes gentler as they begin to open up to each other. “I’m scared, Sistuh Stones,” Mister Bones says late in the play. “I knows the feeling, Mister Bones,” she responds, tenderly. “We sitting chin deep in some blackfaced, shit-stomping, low-down blues, baby, and we can’t get up out of it without each other.” The play ends with a beautiful gesture: Highsmith removes the blond, dreadlocked wig she’s been wearing to reveal her natural hair. It seems as if she’s suddenly bared her soul.
By the time the lights went up on Jane Anderson’s The Last Time We Saw Her, another 10-minute play presented toward the end of the festival, it came as no surprise that the secret Fran, a middle-aged professional woman, reveals to her uptight boss is that she is gay and wants to come out to her co-workers. If you take the Humana Festival as an indicator of the theatre community at large—and it is arguably the single most important venue for new plays in the country—this year’s manifestation is an unsettling state of flux.
Do so many homosexual (especially lesbian) characters signify anything beyond the preoccupations of the individual playwrights—perhaps a struggle to show our other-ness, sexual or otherwise, and to keep up with a society that grows more diverse every day? As we grapple with larger political and social issues, why do we tend to fall back on familiar forms to dramatize them? ATL’s continuing willingness to come to grips with ideas and issues engenders its occasional success at pushing the limits of theatre.
And what about all that sex? As Russ the logger says to Betty the Yeti while she wordlessly propositions him, “It’s perverse. It’s unnatural. It’s unethical. It’s immoral. It’s…strangely tempting.”
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