“Trippingly on the Tongue”

From ‘The Children’s Hour’ to ‘Pulp’

One Critics Look at Lesbians on Stage

(originally published in Gay Chicago Magazine – February 2007)

By Venus Zarris

Because I love you, dear reader, I am going to share with you something very intimate. Over the years, for the purposes of wooing and seduction, I have borrowed a line from Shakespeare’s poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ and it goes something like this; “Fondling,’ she saith, ‘since I have hemm’d thee here Within the circuit of this ivory pale, I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my dear; Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry, Stray lower, where more pleasant fountains lie.” I can’t tell you how successfully this little excerpt has served me. Whisper it in the ear at the right time and sparks fly!

Now, given the subject matter of the text, one would think that this very well might be something written for one woman to say to another but sadly the lesbian gender usage is actually creative license on my part. You see, there is very little in the canon of playwrights that might be of use to a woman ‘making the moves’ on another woman.

Frederick Richard Pickersgill

Frederick Richard Pickersgill

Shakespeare did, however, supply a little something else for us deviate dames. In his play ‘Twelfth Night,’ Viola dresses as a man and does such a good job proclaiming Orsino’s love to Olivia that Olivia actually falls for Viola!(Sounds a little like Barbra Streisand and Amy Irving in ‘Yentl?’ That’s because they pilfered the scenario from the Bard.) When I was in college my lover and I auditioned for a non-equity production of ‘Twelfth Night’ by giving a performance of this very scene. The audition was steamy! Imagine the chemistry between two actual lesbians playing the scene. We were not only cast in the roles but the audition served as enticing foreplay! Sadly, the show was changed before rehearsals began. It seems that the subject matter was too much for the Island Players.

And there’s the rub. Even in theater, one of most liberal of settings, lesbians have been, by in large, OFF LIMITS.

For the last five years I have covered live theater in Chicago. I have seen hundreds of plays, representing a substantial chunk of the work produced here. There are many elements to live theater that are exciting but I must admit that there is little that thrills me more on a personal and base level than to see lesbians depicted on stage. Unfortunately, of those hundreds of productions, only about twenty have depicted lesbians in a way that was worthy of mention. Of those twenty only about ten have presented lesbians as the primary characters in the story. I estimate it to be less than 1%!

Even with Ellen, Rosie, Melissa Ethridge, the L Word and films such as Boys Don’t Cry and Notes on a Scandal, we are still the most unmentionable of the unmentionables. Our visibility in mainstream culture has never been more pronounced and yet we are still a group that primarily exists in the background, but that is not to say that we haven’t made great strides.

A few months ago I reviewed a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, perhaps the most well known of plays dealing with lesbianism. I had seen excerpts from the script in the past and found it to be a depressing depiction of two women’s relationship in a setting that was, to say the least, less than nurturing. I was hoping that this production would provide some evidence that there was something redeeming about this script. Lillian Hellman wrote this tale of ‘lesboppression’ at a time when, just a few years prior, another play dealing with lesbianism was closed by the police and the lead actresses were arrested. One can’t reasonably expect a play about lesbians, written in the early 1930’s, to champion our plight or favorably depict or love. But the lesbian self-loathing in Hellman’s script provided little more than irritating melodrama.

I’ve always loved the film title Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! Perhaps The Children’s Hour should be re-titled Suffer Lesbians, Die! Die!

In 2003 I reviewed the world premiere of Silk Road Theatre Project’s Precious Stones, written by playwright Jamil Khoury. Precious Stones depicted the story of a Jewish woman and a Palestinian woman who came together to organize an Arab-Jewish dialogue group. It took place while the first Palestinian uprising was raging through Israel in 1989. Of course they fell in love, because we all know that NOTHING sets the mood for love with lesbians like drama! And they were faced with enough social, political, class, sexual, and dyke drama to keep an entire softball league of lesbians busy for a lifetime! Written and produced by two men, who declared their life partnership with each other in the stage bill, this was one of the most sensitive and accurate depictions of gay women that I’ve seen on stage.

2003 also saw productions of My Sister In This House and Boston Marriage. Based on a true story from 1933 France, playwright Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister In This House told the story of Christine and Lea, sisters who were both housemaids to a maniacal and controlling Madame and her daughter. While serving in the home of these tyrants the sister’s relationship developed into an intimate and intense fixation. Upon coming home early from a party, the mother and daughter discover the nature of the sisters’ incestuous closeness and threaten to ruin their lives. In a panic the maids tragically lash out and a grisly bloodbath ensued. With scenes depicting games between the sisters like ‘submissive child in convent with naughty nun,’ the wonderfully written and powerfully produced play had tantalizing moments but the violent end offered little in the way of dyke deliverance.

In Boston Marriage, a euphemism referring to Victorian lesbians, playwright David Mamet stretched outside of his usual male dominated stories of hoods and hustlers to venture into a Victorian drawing room belonging to a wickedly naughty lesbian couple. Lines like, “One must keep a civil tongue in ones mouth, though it need not be one’s own,” made for a delightfully devilish look into the lives of two women who’s ‘sexapades’ made for great fun despite their predatorial maneuvers and emotional dysfunction.

2004 saw productions of Pulp, but we’ll get to that later, Half Life, Self Defense (Or the Death of Some Salesmen) and The Garden of Delights. Half Life told the story of Kate Easten, a reporter for Windy City, who fell for Master Sergeant Jen Hunter, a closeted military liaison to the press. The love story became clouded by the multitude of other storylines in this well meaning script that took on too much. But the point brought home in the closing speech spoke volumes as Sergeant Hunter proclaimed, “The Army will allow us to die closeted but not allow us to live free.”

Rivendell Theatre’s Self Defense (Or the Death of Some Salesmen) was a truly remarkable production, written by Carson Kreitzer, which took the audience on a spiraling journey into the demise of Jolene Palmer; a character tightly based on the executed serial killer and scandalously lesbian Aileen Wournos.

I ran a search of Aileen Wuornos on the Internet so that I would have a few accurate dates at my fingertips while writing the play’s review. A simple single page website entitled ‘The Story of Aileen Wuornos’ read, “Aileen “Lee” Wuornos is on Death Row in Broward County, convicted of the murder of six men. Lee says all of the men raped or attempted to rape her. We Believe Aileen Acted in Self-Defense”

Three of the actors played coroners in one scene, describing the dead bodies of murdered prostitutes, and then shed their lab coats to become pole-dancing hookers in the next, establishing perimeters of credibility and then eroticism. Much ground was covered but the prevalent message was clear. The life a woman who becomes a prostitute is devalued to the point of living outside of the protection of justice, while the life a man searching for her ‘services’ looses no value at all.

Trap Door Theatre’s The Garden of Delights depicted the surreal story of a famous actress and her schizophrenic journey to self-discovery, exploring the lesbian tendencies of strong adolescent attachments and the sadomasochistic experience of adult love. The dialogue ranged from, “Put me in your pocket and let me sit with your change and when you buy your evening paper, you can buy it with me.” to, “To get your attention, I throw my shit on you.” Thus providing an insane night of avant-garde chaos and existential anarchy, with super foxy sheep women.

2005 was void of lesbian standout productions, we barely blipped the radar, but 2006 saw The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, The Davinci GayCode and Caged Dames, as well as the aforementioned The Children’s Hour.

Normally, I quickly grow weary of the endless stories of lesbian despair. But The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Trap Door’s “highly stylized look at the shifting power plays in female relationships and one woman’s downward spiral into obsessive jealousy and hysteria,” was so playfully amusing as well as conceptually engaging that I could not recommend this amazing piece of unique European insanity enough. It presented maudlin egotism at its most entertaining and beguiling.

The Davinci GayCode, GayCo Productions sketch comedy review, offered an evening of belly laughs. Its closing number, ‘Late Life Lesbian,’ delivered whimsical humor by depicting a woman that we have all met at least once. That is, a sister who didn’t figure our her homo-longings until long after she had played the ‘June Cleaver’ role to the point of border-line insanity.

David Cerda’s musical camp extravaganza, Caged Dames, depicted the seedy world of women behind bars. Lines like, “Keep it up and I may let you shampoo my carpet.” “No one’s flipped my bacon strip in months.” and “How was your box lunch?” should have sent any self-disrespecting lesbian sprinting to see this tongue-in-cheek tastelessly trashy prison parody.

As entertaining and/or significant as some of these productions were, none served the purpose of ultimate redemption like About Face Theatre’s production of playwright Patricia Kane’s Pulp. Originally premiered at Victory Gardens Theater in 2004, it’s audiences are enjoying a limited run remount at the same location. The run has been extended through May 27th. (2007)

Pulp is a brilliant musical comedy parody send up of the pulp fiction novels of the 1950’s and 60’s depicting the twilight world of lesbians. What sets it apart from its original source material, and all of the other aforementioned plays, is the unique exuberant celebration of lesbian love. This play stands alone as the definitive salvation for all of the unrequited love and atrocities visited upon lesbians on stage, screen and in literature over the last several decades. That may seem like an extreme claim but given the unmitigated joy and entertainment value of this remarkable accomplishment, you need only see the show to know that you are experiencing a theatrical treasure as well as a significant piece of our history.

Over the years, even the most tantalizing depictions of lesbian relationships have had an unspoken code regarding the outcome of these unions. You had a few options. As a lesbian you could expect to either die, be forced to go straight, be incarcerated, institutionalized, move into your brother’s spare room above his garage and write depressing poetry, or at best become a vampire. Happy endings were unheard of. Yet Pulp unapologetically dares to give everyone of its sexy, engaging and loveable characters the promise of a ‘happily ever after.’

Pulp serves as ground breaking theater both historically and theatrically. With an endearing script, delightful music, unsurpassed humor, incomparable direction, a picture perfect cast that you are guaranteed to fall in love with, and infused with enough sexual chemistry to single handedly vanquish the notion of ‘lesbian bed death,’ I dare you to try and find a show that is more entertaining. Gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, asexual, or in love with a carrot, if you see no other play this year, run to see Pulp!

*Afterthought – Sadly, Pulp is no longer running but hopefully it will someday be remounted.

Also sadly, since the writing of this feature I have seen a few hundred more plays and there’s only been about ten that have had any lesbian content. It has ranged from being a main theme to a small subplot. The quality of these plays has ranged from ZERO to 4 STARS. Most have depicted lesbians as crazy, unstable or unrequitedly sad and although a few have been more favorable, nothing has come close to the accomplishments of Pulp in terms of entertainment or positive lesbian content.

Welcome to About Face Theatre * Trap Door Theatre * Welcome to GayCo ProductionsTimeLine Theatre CompanySilk Road Theatre Project *                                                  Rivendell Theatre EnsembleBabes With Blades

Pulp production images by Michael Brosilow

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant production images by Michal Janicki

*Many thanks and apologies to the uncredited production photographers as information was not available for all images.