Related Articles: Theater, All

Pleasure and Pain

Help Me Do the Right Thing

This tasty and sometimes disturbing work explores the transformative and healing powers of sexuality. In it we witness sweet, prim Midwestern girl Peggy, masterfully played by Jennifer Claire, steadily unraveling as her inner erotic fantasy life begins to merge with her drab, staid real-world life. It’s by turns funny, scary, gripping, and sexy, with overtones of Sex Lies and Videotape, Michel Foucault, and BDSM master/slave interrelationships.

Ms. Claire’s Peggy is a volatile, tightly wound, deliciously beautiful young woman who’s Dorothy from Kansas on the outside and Betty Page on the inside (well, at least the dark side of Betty). She projects a simmering, nervous sensuality, a febrile priggishness that threatens to implode at any moment. The roiling inner conflict of her repressed sexuality is at the core of her character, and the more she tries to keep a lid on it, the more evident it becomes to others, and the more it dominates her world.

The play begins in the middle of her ongoing fantasy, which involves a surly yet passive Folsom Street type guy in a cage, the Man, played by Andrew Utter, to whom she barks out orders: “Take off your shirt!” “Down on your knees!” in true dominatrix fashion. She will only give, not receive orders. Her commanding tone and attempts at total control, belie the fact that she’s begging to be dominated and abused, to cross a certain line. Sensing this, her slave complains -- he wants out of the cage, he wants to give a few orders for a change.

Like any self respecting genie, he will serve his master but deep down, he craves his freedom. Peggy relents and lets the slave out of his cage briefly, as he begins to lay out his rules of engagement. The yin-yang back and forth of this intricate master/slave love play is fascinating in its lighting-quick role reversals. But she tricks him back into the cage, insuring his boiling rage and plans for sweet revenge, which soon bear fruit.

Back at the office, Peggy, interrupted in mid-fantasy as her encaged, enraged slave is quickly shuttled out of view, greets her tall, unctuous boss, the Dean, who inquires as to the possible reason for her flushed face. “It must be the mu-shu [pork]” she replies. “I have trouble with spicy food.” Yeah right, her boss seems to be thinking. You can almost hear him (and the audience) imagining infinitely more elaborate reasons for her flushness.

Enter Ruth, the Dean’s faithful middle aged secretary and big-sister figure to Peggy. Diving into their morning work routine, Peggy immediately seeks Ruth’s feedback about her desire to behave in an “unreasonable” way. These two have known each other a long time -- Ruth even reminds Peggy that she used to baby-sit her, a fact that gives the subsequent action a curious little twist. Ruth warily inquires what she means by “unreasonable”, and here we have laid out for us the perfect picture of the Midwestern terror of untoward personal revelation, mitigated by a genuine desire to be neighborly and helpful. Peggy, desperately in need of some kind of human understanding (emotional, physical, or preferably, both), plows ahead: “Well, like the other day I tried masturbating while I was driving.” No chance here of politely ignoring sexuality in the interest of preventing a “hostile work environment”. Ruth’s surprised response eventually turns into mutual sisterly giggling, as the ice is broken. The two end up planning a pot smoking experiment at Peggy’s apartment, which leads to more giggling, and kissing, and abrupt denials of feelings as the lid starts to come off the box of evils and earthly delights for both women.

Next on the scene is Peggy’s schlumpy boyfriend (played by Max Moore), a sweet dorky guy totally in love with his trophy girlfriend, even if she is a bit weird. He’s excited by his new promotion to sales manager, which will allow them to move up a bit in the world and fulfill their plans of marriage. Peggy responds with enthusiasm and kisses and support, but eventually blurts out that she had a lovely evening with Ruth that involved pot smoking and kissing. The boyfriend reacts in predictable fashion, and thus begins the pathetic disintegration of their insular little relationship, as they devolve into the typical sexual combat of the young American couple. “Why can’t you be more…I don’t know…passionate?” “Just tell me what you want!” “I thought you wanted me to be nice!” And so on.

The action steadily escalates as Peggy draws everyone in her life into her game while remaining unsure about exactly what it entails or who’s making up the rules. More steamy fantasy sessions with the Man have her begging him to play with her, to debase her: “Rape me. Invade me. Break me. Own me.” (Sounds like a great song title.) The tables are now fully turned, and slave turns into master as Peggy gradually loses control of her erotic power. Things cross that certain line when the Dean, inadvertently discovers her writing in a pile of papers -- the writing that is the text for her fantasy life. Then her slave, now her master, and the Dean team up on her, forcing her to confront her feelings by pushing the envelope.

Inevitable confrontations ensue: with Ruth, who suddenly realizes that she’s gay and in love with Peggy; with the boyfriend, who’s furious that Peggy has invited Ruth to stay over for a few days while she deals with her impending separation from her husband; and with the Dean, who wants to play along with Peggy’s hot-blooded fantasies that now include him, but then doesn’t, claiming allegiance to his wife and kids while projecting helpless, abject lust for Peggy. “I can’t do this! Help me do the right thing!” he implores her. The play climaxes with an electrifying but highly metaphoric scene of transformation and redemption.

In a video interview, French Canadian playwright Chantal Bilodeau explains her unusual inspiration for this work. For her, the exploration of sexuality has to do with, among other things, creative power, embracing your “Dark Spot”, and healing. This is refreshing, and seems to be almost without precedent. Sexuality in our arts and media is usually presented within a narrowly defined context of relationships and power. In mainstream media, when it’s not accompanied by significant shame, violence, mayhem, and murder, sexuality is trivialized and abstract, or simultaneously priggish and lascivious. I can’t think of many works of art in Western culture in any media that deal with the healing power of sexuality. "Pleasure and Pain", embracing that idea in the context of BDSM, which is certainly understood by only an enlightened minority in this country, is quietly revolutionary. It’s all the more powerful for being funny, too.

In the interview Bilodeau also explains her method of writing, which entailed developing a lot of dialog and stripping it down to the most banal phrases, which, in the hands of these excellent actors, deliver a powerfully ironic effect, as we recognize our own banality in dealing with our own sexuality. Lines like “I guess things change,” “Treating someone like shit is a lot easier than being nice,” and “You’re like the Mona Lisa, infinitely complex and imperfect…it breaks my heart.” are spectacularly devoid of real meaning, yet richly endowed with irony and emotion on the stage. Director Jessica Heidt obviously knows how to get the most out of her actors with this beautiful material.

For Bilodeau, exploring sexuality is a way to seek out emotions and experiences that may make you uncomfortable, but can put you in touch with what it is that makes you feel most alive, even if it’s not in line with your idea of yourself. "Pleasure and Pain" shows us that this territory may be scary at times, but once we know about it, we have to take the journey. I’m eager to see more work from this delightful and challenging artist.

Pleasure and Pain
at Magic Theater
runs through March 31
tickets: $20- $25