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On The Arts: Private parts come out in the open in artful ways on stage

Sunday, December 03, 2000

By: Christopher Rawson

"Penis" and "Vagina," a dignified couple immobile on a Grecian urn
-- Ed Ochester, University of Pittsburgh poet

That's it, we're over the hump: My friend Ed's elegant distich puts those two controversial words right up front. Avert your eyes now if mention of these body parts offends you, because today I'm writing about hit stage attractions in, respectively, London and New York, named "Puppetry of the Penis" and "The Vagina Monologues."


Christopher Rawson is the Post-Gazette's drama critic.


Both names are apt: For once, we have truth in advertising.

Ed's lines come from his early poem, "My Penis," and although Lorena Bobbitt and Bill Clinton opened up newspapers to that particular word, I couldn't quote some of Ed's other lines, which jocularly suggest other names. In contrast with the dignified Penis and Vagina, he imagines a more informally named pair as "two funloving kids / traveling from Pittsburgh to Tangiers, / laughing at Baptists but loving God."

My topic is exactly what all this implies -- our feelings about body parts and their use in art. That's ultimately what these shows are about. Along the way, "Puppetry of the Penis" is simply good-natured body parts comedy, while by contrast, "The Vagina Monologues" is practically Plato or Proust.

"Puppetry of the Penis" is a couple of buck-naked Aussies treating their genital equipment like rubber toys capable of amazing impersonations. The act looks as though it started with guys trying to make each other laugh while swilling down several pints in the locker room after a rugby match. "Vagina Monologues," though, is three actresses presenting an artful, revealing collage of interviews and facts about women's attitudes toward their bodies. Both shows are very funny, and the net result of each is to release inhibitions and question taboos -- "laughing at [name your favorite orthodoxy] but loving God," indeed.

Speaking of taboos, should I ease up for the squeamish and call the shows "Puppetry" and "Monologues" for short?

OK -- even though that also shortchanges my main point.

"Puppetry" first. A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it opened this fall at London's Whitehall Theatre, a West End equivalent of a real Broadway house. The night I was there, the audience was two-thirds young women (20s, 30s), many in celebratory groups, while the theater bars did a brisk business.

As warm-up, a female comic does a half-hour of mainly sex jokes. Several comics alternate -- mine was Jackie Clune, a vocal impersonator with a specialty in Karen Carpenter. Then came an intermission to allow more drinks and gleeful anticipation.

The meat of the evening begins with a faux Asian monk describing the ancient art of "genital origami," which is the category of wonder "Puppetry" claims to inhabit. He then retreats to the balcony, where he operates the video camera that projects large close-ups of the genital impersonations.

Simon Morley, 33, and David Friend, 31, genially introduce themselves as performance artists. (The program claims they first developed their tricks as youngsters in the bath.) They doff their capes, revealing themselves in the altogether except for white socks and sneakers, then do warm-ups ("so we won't pull a muscle"). As one chatters, the other modestly turns his back to prepare each new "installation," before turning with a flourish: "A wrist watch!" "The Loch Ness Monster!" "The Duke of Edinburgh!" There's invariably a big burst of laughter.

And sometimes sympathetic "ooohs," too, and a little wincing: Some of the "constructions" take more ample and limber equipment than normally comes to hand, but that's what theater is about -- talented individuals occasioning astonishment and enjoyment. Bullfrog, snail, baby bird, sea anemone, Kentucky fried chicken, hamburger -- the "installations" go on and on, the humor often residing more in what each is called than what it looks like. "Don't try this one at home," they frequently warn -- but they needn't worry.

Their very first impersonation, though, is one they say every man has tried at least once, and I bet they're right. But I'm going to leave this and other particulars to your own imagination; no critic should ever give away the whole show.

The patter isn't much, but they're so cheery and frank that it feels funny. Morley and Friend perform for about an hour, which is just long enough, because the joke (and equipment) has its limits. They're likable blokes, and that they're Australians, which in London means manly primitive, is an important part of their appeal.

No understudies are listed in the program, which is oddly reassuring. But who knows? -- the franchise may spread.

"Monologues" is already a franchise. Written (drawing heavily on extensive interviews) and first performed by Eve Ensler, it has been an off-Broadway hit for more than a year. Those who've performed it so far include Diahann Carroll, Claire Danes, Linda Ellerbee, Calista Flockhart, Amy Irving, Shirley Knight, Marsha Mason, Audra McDonald, Alanis Morissette, Rosie Perez, Phylicia Rashad, Brooke Shields and Marlo Thomas.

I saw comic Susie Essman, actress Robin Givens and actress/celeb Donna Hanover, estranged wife of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and once an anchor on KDKA's "Evening Magazine." The cast has changed since. It changes easily because the performers sit with their texts before them, alternating and interweaving Ensler's material, which ranges from comic to tragic, from meditative to inspirational. The overriding theme, especially of the older women interviewed, is ignorance of bodily functions finally confronted and acknowledged, often with wonder and humor.

Helping the mix is the difference of the three voices. Hanover was a warm funny presence; Givens, brassy and strong; Essman, fluid and able to play brightly off audience response. The audience, mixed male-female and predominantly middle-aged, reacted as if to a joyous revival meeting.

Given some of the horrors committed in the interest of suppressing female sexuality, ignorance is not bliss. I have no doubt that "Monologues" has a therapeutic impact, and it's also good fun. Almost in spite of itself, "Puppetry" can make the same claim. Though it has all the intellectual content of a frat party, it's a rare chance to laugh at naked sex organs without hurting anyone's feelings. Comedy here is a healthy antidote to oppressive mystery.

NOTE: The above has been carefully vetted for inadvertent puns. If any rise up and catch your attention, shame on you.

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