Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Little Commentary on Bilitis ...

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.” 
- Winston Churchill
My review of Songs of Bilitis is comfortably in the rear-view mirror, and so I feel I can publish a little more commentary. I really enjoyed Bilitis, and think everyone should go see it.  Even if it's not your cup of tea, you should go see it.  In fact, stop reading this (there are spoilers) and go buy your tickets.  They just announced they are extending the run to April 6th, but make your plans now.

Bilitis has stirred my imagination as a writer and occasional producer of live entertainment, and that means I'm fussing with details, questioning choices, wondering how things might have been done differently, etc. I have nothing but the utmost appreciation and admiration for what Rogue Artists Ensemble has accomplished, so everything I have to say here comes from that.  Also, it's all my opinion and probably wrong.

Eroticism as a Narrative Device

Rogue has methodically and thoughtfully sought to render eroticism as a narrative device. This isn't eroticism as a gimmick, this is eroticism as essential to the storytelling.  No mean feat.  In the review I wrote, "It feels at times like an academic exercise," and this is what I'm talking about.  A lot of thought went into how to weave the physical into the story.

It is a highly romanticized take on the writer's work. Pierre Louys writhes on the floor, pen to paper. Bilitis' story, the very words are like a seething mass of skin on skin, reaching, spilling forth from Pierre. Bilitis' trysts play out in a very impressionistic way. It is as if we are seeing into Pierre's imagination.  At the same time, the touching, kissing, moaning, etc. is a living metaphor of the creative act.  It's the closest thing to "Theatre of Cruelty" that I've witnessed, and it's staggering when it hits.

The journey Bilitis takes is Pierre's journey.  Wherever the idea of Bilitis came from, and no matter how haunted he is by Bilitis as his muse, he is still her progenitor. This comes into sharp relief with the following exchange (and a huge thank you to playwright Katie Polebaum for providing me with the exact dialogue from her playscript):
Did I ruin you? You came to me so full of life and now- 
Not ruined. 
I don’t want to keep hurting you.
Quite frankly, this is something only a writer can fully understand.  When you grow attached to a character, and are forced to contort them through horrific experiences on their journey to some cathartic climax, it fucking hurts.  The brilliant thing that Polebaum did in her writing (and the company no doubt contributed to this through their process) was to tie the emotional journey to a physical manifestation that hits the audience smack dab in the middle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's masterful.

And yes, it is academic at times.  And yes, they sometimes cheat and give us simulated sex instead of real eroticism.  Considering the overall success of the piece, the occasional stumbles are forgivable.

The Use of Theatrical Nudity

Songs of Bilitis has a fair share of nudity, although most of it is carefully teased at. A laundry list: Pierre Louys wears nearly sheer underwear.  His consort Meriem dances for him in a shimmy belt and revealing chainmail top.  Actors strip down and copulate in silhouette.  Bilitis is stripped topless for a ritual involving three dancing priestesses, nude save for gauzy, short-cropped togas.  Characters appear onstage wearing grotesque phalli.

Let's take a look at the priestess episode. Polebaum and the play's director, Shawn Calweti address it in an interview with LA Stage Times.

“Once you get over the initial, ‘Oh my gosh, someone is totally naked on stage,’ where do you look?  It’s distracting, you can’t really pay attention.”  Polebaum is quoted.  I don't know if I buy that.  If anything, these Rogue cats are experts at telling an audience where to look.
A scene set in a temple with priestesses initially contained explicit nudity.  “The scene became instantly really uninteresting,” Cawelti says with a shrug.
Now, the priestesses wear very gauzy material, masking the nudity underneath.  Cawelti says this works much more effectively.  “Because you don’t see hard underwear lines, and they are moving a very free way, the audience feels this sensuality and eroticism.”  He compares it to another art form, “So much of it is like a great burlesque strip tease.  As someone is taking off their dress, a piece of fabric is flying in, so you are just seeing a few inches of skin as the dress is coming off.”
I get it.  First of all, the high priestesses wear masks. I imagine it would look quite absurd to have a dancer onstage, nude save for a mask.  Second, without the tease, the immediate impact of the nudity wears off.  I've seen this happen at Naked Girls Reading.  Third, as in burlesque, you need to tell a story.  Otherwise, why not just cut to the chase and go to Bare Elegance?

And yet there is that final reveal in burlesque.  The priestess episode from Bilitis and the above quote from Cawelti reminds me of the Eyes Wide Shut homage from Kubrilesque, a burlesque tribute to the films of Stanley Kubrick from Cherry Kiss Burlesque. I was there for the first couple of stagings of the show (my wife was Alex in the Clockwork Orange homage.)

The second night of the show, the Eyes Wide Shut number really clicked. At the end of  a very ritualistic number (well ... ritualistic meets Las Vegas showgirl,) from the center of a ring of dancers holding massive feather fans emerged a lone dancer -- Crystal Swarovski -- completely nude.  It was a moment of release; a final reveal of magnitude.

The mere act of disrobing means something.  When a burlesque dancer removes a glove, it can mean more then the mere discarding of a garment.  Think about how much of our experience of the world around us depends upon our hands and our sense of touch.  "Look with your eyes, not your hands," we are sometimes told whilst manhandling a new and foreign object.  When a dancer exposes her hand, she is symbolically opening herself up to sensation. Amplify that by every inch of skin, and you have the final reveal from the Eyes Wide Shut homage.

Such a final reveal would be interesting in the priestess episode.  Tease the audience with the barely-clad dancers, and at the climax of the number we see the emergence of a completely nude Bilitis.  It would be a rebirth; a baptism of the flesh. As it plays now, Bilitis is topless during the entire episode, and it does lose its impact.

Random Observations

A few scattered observations and thoughts, and a couple of nitpicks that would have just muddled my review:
  • In the staging of the nudity and simulated sex, it was a little too pat that the screens would suddenly rise to conceal the naughty bits. It got to the point where a screen would rise and we'd just kind of expect someone was about to get naked.  There must be a more subtle way to stage those moments without telegraphing what is about to happen.
  • One of the most erotic moments of the play is (possibly) accidental.  Pierre is at his lowest ebb, completely wasted.  Debussy enters and takes pity on his friend. Debussy sits on the bed and places Pierre's head in his lap. It is an innocent moment that nevertheless has a homoerotic charge to it. It could be that Cawelti knew exactly what he was doing in this moment, and if so, I doff my hat.
  • The puppets are not as well integrated into the play as they could be.  I'm not sure what the solution might be.  As I mentioned in the review, the puppets of young Bilitis and Selenis seem unfinished. Given that they herald the first sexual encounter, they need to be softened.  Hell, they are walking hand in hand across fields built out of the actors' bodies.  The ground they walk on is softer than the puppets!
  • One of the images of Bilitis used in the videos looks like a headshot of the actress.  I swear to Bacchus, I saw pearl stud earrings.  Maybe I didn't -- maybe I did and pearl stud earrings are historically correct.  Nevertheless, every other pair of earrings we see are dangly and it stands out (did I mention some of these would be nitpicks?)

In Conclusion

I'm a fan of this show. Obviously. If that were not the case, I wouldn't have bothered with this follow-up and commentary. I wish I had seen the workshop version at Getty Villa, and I would like to revisit the show later on in its run. I would be interested to hear what audience members thought about the show and what they experienced. I'd like to know more about the process that brought Bilitis to the stage.

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