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100 Years of Sex Acts

Love and Desire Through the Ages

The Eastenders Repertory Company's sixth annual festival of short plays really isn't intended to shock, despite this year's theme: 100 Years of Sex Acts. While some of the vignettes are as titillating as you're likely to get from bare-bones theatre, the Oakland-based company is merely commencing with their festival formula: a chronological retrospective of the short play, revolving around a different theme each year.
Astute renditions of obscure literary masterpieces by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Caryl Churchill, and Federico Garcia Lorca set the stage for three marvelous evenings marking the gradual evolution of the way we think about sexuality and gender.

Certainly, sex and gender are such ubiquitous themes in art that making a fuss over them can seem like theatrical pablum. After all, more daring feats of performance can easily be mined from other topics -- and you can still throw the sex in for good measure. But perhaps the foremost accomplishment of the Eastenders' collage of desire, conjugal relations, and the battle between the sexes is the sheer versatility of it all. The rotating ensemble flits from working-class British couples to Spanish nobility to Southern gentlemen in drag -- without batting an eyelash or misplacing an accent. Even the set, comprising adaptable wood scraps, settees that can be disguised as beds, and all-purpose windows, is adroitly exploited to serve each disparate tale.

The first evening of the series -- and chronologically, the earliest -- features two pieces: "Playing With Fire", by August Strindberg, and "The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in His Garden", by Federico Garcia Lorca. Strindberg is a quintessentially cynical dramaturge, and his comedy of errors is like a nihilistic version of Oscar Wilde -- replete with amoral, caviling husbands and wives who dissect eroticism with the arrogant self-awareness of philosophers. As humorous likeable as the actors are, particularly Gene Mocsy as a libertine dandy named Axel, and Sandra Weingart as the adulterous Kerstin, Strindberg's themes of jealousy and the disingenuousness of both love and marriage are better fleshed out in his longer pieces. "Playing With Fire" is too impressionistic and episodic to leave much of an impact.

Its companion piece, "The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in His Garden", in contrast, is an enchanting parable on love and sex. Lorca's surreal and almost ritualistic is about a beautiful young woman who marries a rich but naïve older man, the story follows in the footsteps of Lorca's other folk-inspired fables. It's a poetic work that throbs with the raw longing of sexual awakening -- in this case, Don Perlimplin's. The acting in this piece is understated yet powerful; watching Mistyann Loetterle (as Belisa) strolling around in diaphanous robes as John Hutchinson (who plays the cuckold Don Perlimpin) gazes on in inarticulate wonder is an aesthete's vision, reminding us of youth and beauty's unconscionable power to ensnare the senses, despite predictably tragic consequences.

The second evening of the festival is perhaps the most gritty and confrontational of the three nights, due to its candid treatment of gender, violence, and eroticism. The first play is a newly discovered piece by Tennessee Williams, "And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens…", which was written sometime between 1957 and 1970 and was first performed in 2004. It's about a gay interior designer named Candy Delaney (played to brilliant effect by the fluttery Craig Souza), who has recently been deserted by his older lover and attempts to shake off the "spectre of loneliness" when he picks up a young ruffian named Karl in a New Orleans gay bar. Candy's attraction to the loutish, opportunistic (and straight) Karl is heartrending. As she plies him with money, gifts, and snippets of her past, she also attempts to create the illusion of a happy couple living along strictly gendered lines by dressing in drag and playing the part of a doting wife. The fantasy quickly disintegrates, culminating in a violent finale. It's a piece whose power doesn't ensue merely from its frank exploration of homosexual subculture, but also from Williams' brutal examination of the lengths we'll go to escape loneliness.

The second play of the night is Dacia Maraini's 1978 "Dialogue Between a Prostitute and Her Client", a scorching example of gender politics, played out between the prostitute Manila (Sandra Weingart) and her client (Ross Pasquale). It's the most directly sexual of all the plays, particularly in its scrutiny of violence, fantasy, and artifice. Director Charles Polley's claustrophobic staging is perfect for the game of control and manipulation played between the two characters, but this is a piece that is essentially about Manila. Maraini is a celebrated Italian novelist, poet, and playwright whose humanization of Manila deliberately distorts the stereotype of the prostitute as a femme fatale or disgraced soul.

Maraini doesn't offer any easy answers; however, while she scrutinizes the client's virgin/whore complex and the atmosphere of violence that looms over the two characters, Manila's own ambivalence and reluctant admission of sexual desire for her client preclude any easy judgments. Weingart is captivating as Manila, dissecting her client with the precision and attentiveness of a graduate student researcher. Between lyrical snatches of conversation, Weingart breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience questions about their own beliefs and practices regarding sex, desire, and violence. I've never been a fan of audience involvement, but even as I sat uncomfortably through those moments, I was impressed by the pure seamlessness of Weingart's transition from character to facilitator.

The final evening comprises two contemporary plays: Caryl Churchill's "Three More Sleepless Nights", and Edward Albee's "Marriage Play". Churchill's piece is perhaps the least interesting of all the assembled works. It explores marital troubles among two working-class British couples, and takes the form of tiresome bedroom squabbles. The play is actually a triptych of conversations stemmed by insomnia; and oddly, the first conversation -- a voluble quarrel between Margaret (played by Celia Maurice) and Frank (played by Craig Dickerson) -- makes for the most superb and effortless acting and direction (by Susan Evans) in the festival. Watching Maurice and Dickerson quibble about Frank's infidelity and drinking problems is so real that it's virtually voyeuristic. The remainder of the play disintegrates into a boring demonstration of how relationship patterns tend to repeat themselves, even after people find new partners.

Edward Albee's "Marriage Play" is another long and irksome quarrel between a middle-aged couple (again played by Celia Maurice and Craig Dickerson). Albee's self-conscious cleverness can be grating, and this is true for all of his work, but he fleshes out the conjugal battlefield so well that he keeps us engaged, despite ourselves. The play is full of barbed ripostes and churlish exchanges between Jack, a man who comes in one day to tell his scornful wife Gillian that he is leaving her after 30 years of marriage.

Maurice and Dickerson sizzle with chemistry, grating their teeth through civil exchanges before all hell breaks loose and we're led to the final Sartreian conclusion. The message is that it's easier to be married and unhappy than start one's life anew. Maurice and Dickerson move through the play's haze of Brechtian absurdity with the panache of consummate thespians, transforming what could be an excruciating experience into one of the most ferocious dialogues I've seen in years.

Artistic Director Susan Evans has said that in order to get the full gist of what Eastenders is trying to do with the festival, one has to experience all three nights. But while many of the pieces are startling in insights, others leave the viewer entertained but essentially unmoved. While I would have been content to pick out my favorites and avoid some of the more superfluous discourses, 100 Years of Sex Acts serves up several provocative evenings of theater that prove the rules are pretty much the same as they've ever been on the battlefield of sex and desire.

100 Years of Sex Acts
runs March 3rd - April 1st
at Exit on Taylor
All shows are at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15-18