Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: Lust in the City

Sexual awakenings come when we least expect them. Unless they are completely provoked. Regardless how they happen, it’s what occurs next that is the real story. In Spicy Witch Production and Elle Anhorn’s The Cunt, a modern day retelling of William Wycherley's The Country Wife, young and naïve Maggie travels to Brooklyn to visit her boyfriend only to be wooed by the lustful Henna. Paired in rep with the source material itself, The Cunt explores gender and sexual identity in a common manner.
With a modern spin, The Cunt brings the classic characters to the greatest city in the world in a time where sex, love, and lust seem to be at an all time high. Maggie and Allie leave the country to visit their boyfriends Bud and Stark in New York. On their journey to this new world, they meet neighbor Henna who introduces Maggie to explore a side of her that may or may not be repressed deep inside. When Henna and her new friends take a trip to a burlesque show, the evening leads to new discoveries and a domino effect of drama and realizations. Incorporating a rhyming burlesque narrator, Anhorn takes the audience on a journey that parallels to Wycherley’s. Unfortunately, Anhorn’s transportation of Wycherley’s world was flawed. There was certainly ingenuity on Anhorn’s part but she played highly into the arcs and types of Wycherley’s characters. Almost too a fault. Sometimes the parallel adaptation idea worked wonders, but the modern equivalents of some of Wycherley’s plot points diminished the story. The Cunt certainly could stand alone as its own play, but that would require some strong logic adjustments. In a time of cell phones, mystery and intrigue is sort of lost. Anhorn did her best to address the problematic moments involving the cell phone but it also caused the actors to actively fight against logic. As far as the characters Anhorn pulled from Wycherley’s source material, they were a bit one-dimensional. Anhorn swapped genders for Horner, making the character a female named Henna. This choice brought up an incredibly captivating choice. Like Horner, Henna is a seducer. Yet a female seducing young, and possibly confused, girls makes her appear as “bad.” Yet Horner’s antics in the original are comical. While this thesis is mesmerizing, the character of Henna is hard to care about. You almost don’t care that she gets her heart hurt due to her antics. To modernize the heartbreak, Anhorn has jealous and trustless Bud pose as Maggie and text Henna. It’s truly the first mammoth moment of plot. Yet it doesn’t get discussed when the trio is together, making Henna appear weak, something to this point, she is anything but. Wycherley’s play is a neatly constructed Restoration play with three plots that are interlinked. Anhorn smartly plays upon this but allows them to freely interact. That being said, she spends a little too much time with Stark and Allie alone. In this version of the play, they serve as supporting characters, halting the momentum of the core story of Henna and Maggie. Anhorn also employs a narration device with the character of Darla. Darla speaks in rhyme, which in itself, feels odd. Regardless, Darla has magical powers that allow for a flashback. It comes out of nowhere yet it’s dynamic. Anhorn would benefit from exploring these devices in her storytelling further, allowing her piece stand out a little more. Where she could pull back is through the burlesque. Burlesque is very specific and may not serve as the best sexual awakening for the universality of the themes.
photo by Jessica Briggs
The ensemble driven dramedy offered some mixed performances. Amanda Sophia Ebert captured the deliberate temptress that is Henna. Ebert was strong yet was able to find moments of vulnerability. Opposite her as Maggie, Katie Fanning plays stereotypically naïve, lacking honesty. While it may be derived from the character Anhorn wrote, there was something missing in the character that drives her exploration. As over-dominating Bud, Tim Haber seemed to tap into the controlling nature of his character’s source. Why it took so long for Maggie to stick up for herself with the treatment she gets from Bud is shocking. Bud is not a good guy, yet Haber found a way to make you believe his intent was genuine. The star of this show was Zach Libresco as Stark. Libresco captured the brotastic nature of the straight guy, gym obsessed actor. Libresco finds subtleties in his performance that garner some giggles and laughs. Allie’s arc is very confusing. One minute she’s happy go-lucky and excited. The next moment, she is reprimanding anyone in her path. Kristin Guerin seemed to struggle finding a cohesive journey for Allie. Though, it’s clear that Allie and Bud are certainly siblings. As pinup princess of burlesque Darla, Kat Murphy captivates. She plays into the rhyming rhythm of the text and has nothing but fun. Frankie, as it currently stands, serves as nothing more but a scene partner for Henna. He has little reason to be in this story. Combining Kat and Frankie could certainly happen. Isaac Allen Miller certainly does all he can to make his presence seem necessary.
The Cunt has some textual issues yet it also seemed to have many directorial questions as well. Director Francesca Di Cesare seemed to have trouble making the Flamboyan work to her advantage. Her staging caused many important places of focus to become lost. With a thrust stage to work off of, the placement of the cabaret tables hurt the storytelling. At the burlesque variety show, Frankie gets a moment to show off his skills. Firstly, Frankie’s song fell into the “Smash” trap of mediocre material that is instantly praised. But the important bit of storytelling in this moment was supposed to be the interaction and reaction between Bud and Maggie. With Di Cesare having them almost of out audience focus, this bit of jealousy was lost. She also had consistency issues with the quick scene shifts. Some moments of the scene called for multiple locations to be present, she would have her actors remain on stage. Other times, they would disappear. In both instances, where to focus was called into question. With the predominant set piece by Robert Bursztyn being the stoop, Di Cesare seemed to forget the practicality of space, allowing her actors to roam on what would be presumed to be the streets of Brooklyn. Bursztyn’s set also included a window that served as a projection screen. It was seldom used by projection designer Caleb Sharp, except when involving the cell phone. It worked when Bud was rummaging around on Maggie’s phone, but displaying the selfie taken by Maggie and Henna in act one felt wrong and disconnected. Did we really need to see what we already saw?
The Cunt is certainly a work in progress. Adapting Wycherley’s text is no easy task and Spicy Witch Productions and Elle Anhorn should be commended. But when it’s no longer presented alongside the source material, it may not resonate the way it should.