Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Songs of Bilitis

Rogue Artists Ensemble present the world premiere at The Bootleg Theater

review by Andrew Moore

An almost seamless production with just a couple of small problem spots that should not distract from this gorgeous, immersive, and thrilling production of Katie Polebaum's new play.  An impressionistic and highly romanticized look into the creation of Pierre Louys infamous literary forgery, Songs of Bilitis reveals the erotic life of the titular Greek courtesan.  Clothed in gauzy, intellectualized eroticism, underneath it is a story about inspiration, creation, and the obsession of a writer possessed.

Rogue puts on a good show. We all know this. They take their time in development and their focus on design produces stunning theatricality and production values. They are committed to giving the audience the best possible experience of a story. The attention to moment by moment detail is staggering: even their preshow sound design is multi-channel (When you go -- and you know you will -- listen. Notre Dame is ringing her bells behind you as street traffic passes before you.) Their obsession with capital "S" Show guarantees a good night out, regardless of what story they're actually telling.

With Songs of Bilitis, the artists of Rogue have pushed themselves out of their comfort zone with a narrative that has evoked a worthy experiment in eroticism. They are striving for something more than just the sensory overload of their brilliantly choreographed "hyper-theater." They are attempting a sensuality that weaves through the narrative, inseparable from it, illuminating a thematic focus on the stormy love affair between an author and his muse.

The eroticism is actually pretty tame, more psychological than visceral. It feels at times like an academic exercise and at other times a euphemism for "simulated sex." Make no mistake, it is a fully committed attempt, and there are some truly stimulating moments. The artists of Rogue are close to a breakthrough with eroticism as a storytelling device, and I hope Songs of Bilitis is not their final foray into this territory.

The design work is top notch as always, particularly the sound design by John Nobori. Nobori captures live samples of dialogue and works it into the panoply of music and sound that accompanies the action. This heightens the moments of passion throughout the play, and is very well integrated.  The puppets look a little unfinished, which may have been a conscious design choice, but is somewhat distracting (Particularly in the episode that heralds Bilitis' first Sapphic encounter. Soften the puppets. At least give them hair.)

Aryiel Hartman is charming and effervescent, finding a perfect balance of representational and presentational in her portrayal of Bilitis.  Her youthful highs soar; her older and wiser turmoil devastates.  Christopher Rivas ably steers through the emotional life of the poet, Pierre Louys, but has to struggle in the beginning scenes to be heard.  He is the only actor not wearing a microphone (or so it seems) and the effort necessary to make his voice heard is a detriment to establishing the necessary charm and charisma of his character.

The chorus deserves special recognition for creating this world in real time, with the named characters they portray and with the physical theater that transforms the world from 19th century Algeria to ancient Greece, and literally drives Bilitis and Mnasidika together.  The collaboration of this cast, movement coach Estela Garcia, choreographer Nate Hodges, and director Sean T. Cawelti would spellbind us without the bells and whistles of video, light, and sound design.

I really liked this show, and it has given me a lot to chew on over the past couple of days as a reviewer and incidental theater producer.  It certainly spoke to me as a writer.  It's the sort of show that I wish I could have watched through its development as the artists collaborated to create it.  I imagine I'll revisit the well of Bilitis for weeks to come, turning over in my mind the choices made in bringing this to the stage, pondering the use and usefulness of eroticism as a storytelling device, and no doubt spouting off about both here on Mad Theatrics.

One thing is clear, and this should be the driving force to turn out audiences to see this show:  Rogue Artists Ensemble has produced a uniquely theatrical experience that cannot be captured on film and cannot be conveyed in mere words.  Even the photos used to illustrate this review fall far short of explaining what Songs of Bilitis is like. I suppose it's like the difference between having sex and reading about it. You don't really know what you're missing until you've had it.

Songs of Bilitis will take you in Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30 pm through March 30th.  Mature audiences only, as Songs of Bilitis contains nudity and adult themes.  Admission is $25, but you can get $5 off the price of admission on Thursdays with the code "Bilitis13".  Tickets are available online at, or by calling (213) 389-3856.  Parking is $3 in a private church lot across the street, but if you get there a little early, you should be able to find street parking.  And get there early to enjoy a drink and the ambiance of the Bootleg.

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