If you’re unfamiliar with Pierre Louÿs’ “Songs of Bilitis” (I was only marginally aware of him in connection with Claude Debussy) then be sure to read the program notes or you may be a tad perplexed by what’s going on, that being one of the flaws, though not the only one I’m afraid, with Katie Polebaum’s adaption.
In 1894, Louÿs, a French poet and novelist, translated and published a volume of poems of an ancient Greek courtesan by the name of Bilitis. The verses, some 143 poems in all, had been discovered in a tomb unearthed by the archaeologist Herr G. Heim and were believed to have been composed between 550 and 600 B.C.E. and told the story of Bilitis’ life long pursuit of sensual pleasures. The poems were praised for their unbridled eroticism and consummate portrayal in celebration of the delights of Sapphic love.
They were also a fraud. Like Clifford Irving with Howard Hughes, like Carlos Castaneda and some weird old Mexican dude, Louÿs had faked the whole shebang.
The story of the play is rather simplistic as penned by Katie Polebaum. Louÿs travels to north Africa to engage in some exotic debauchery. Once there he finds a muse in Meriem (Estela Garcia), the veiled bedecked courtesan, and throws himself into a frenzy of writing (ala Robert Louis Stevenson and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Kubla Khan).
There are those who seek to pull him out of his creative delirium, but unlike Coleridge, Louÿs doesn’t answer the knocking of the “Person from Porlock” (Google it). Louÿs ignores the entreaties of his friend, his strumpet and his brother and goes on to finish Songs of Bilitis. The end.
The Rogue Artist Ensemble is an exhilarating explosion of styles on stage. This was true of “D is for Dog” also by Polebaum, and it’s doubly true for “Song of Bilitis”. “Bilitis” displays a bravura blending of traditional playing style and techniques taken from world theatre which overwhelms one with the magical possibilities when you have talented performers on an “empty space”.
But I have a problem, I fear, with “Bilitis”, which I also had to a lesser extent with “D is For Dog”. Strip off the imaginary stage machinations, the exquisite puppetry, the clever flamboyance of it all and what is left? Sadly with “Bilitis” not a heck of a lot.
Louÿs is supposedly possessed by the creative demon, but we do not see the price he pays for that possession, and, believe me, there’s always a price. There are those who try to pull him away from his frantic scribing. His brother threatens to end his financial support. His inspiration Meriem tries to entice him from his fantasy passion with the lure of real passion. But there is never a struggle in these encounters; we never see what it cost Louÿs to keep writing. There is no price in the choices he makes and therefore there is no conflict. Nor do we have a sense of his reward in the achievement.
In the oft told tale of Michelangelo and Pope Julius II you have suffering, threats of excommunication, you have the attacks on the work by Cardinal Carafa, you have Julius demanding when the work will be finished, and Michelangelo replying curtly, “When I am done.” But through it all you have Michelangelo being driven to complete his vision. To quote Will Durant, “and laboring with such mad energy that when [he was] dead all Italy seemed exhausted and empty.”
We do not have a shadow of that conflict in “Bilitis”, and at the end neither do we have the Sistine Chapel – just the poems of Louÿs.
As one, I fear, condemned to die a miserable monoglot, I gotta think that French is some smoking language where everything just sounds better when spoken in. Now I’ve read the Marquis de Sade and thought he was pretty stupid and very dopey. But the French claim that he’s “the cheese.” The French apparently also considers Louÿs’ poems to be pretty great stuff, but I found them – dare I say it? Pretty stupid and very dopey. But poetry is so subjective that you’ll find a selection from “Song of Bilitis” below so you can judge for yourself.
Christopher Rivas is a ringer for Louÿs, but his transformation from Parisian gentleman to profligate poet is too pat. There is no apprehension, no uncertainty for him to overcome in the struggle over what fate wishes him to become, and therefore there is no drama. Change involves a type of death and a type of birth, and neither death nor birth comes without pain.
Meriem (Estela Garcia) the Algerian fille de joie, who inspires him and Bilitis (Aryiel Hartman), the wanton creation of his pen, struggle for possession of Louÿs’ soul, but it is a battle that rings hollow as Katie Polebaum has not shown us what is at stake here.
Garcia, Rivas, Hartman and the entire cast give it their best, but there is just nothing for them to work with.
Director and designer Sean T. Cawelti may have recognized this flaw in the show, because he and his artistic crew have pulled out all the stops to utterly and completely dazzle the audience with spectacular staging. Scenic designer Sarah Krainin and Matthew G. Hill, the video designer, create a fluid environment on stage that is constantly in flux. Keith Mitchell’s mask, Cristina Bercovitz’s puppets and Kerry Hennessy’s costumes are wonders unto themselves.
This show has a great deal to offer; a cast that is committed and talented, plus a staging that will knock your eyes out. Also let me say that this is probably the best lesbian date play since “Last Summer at Blue Fish Cove”. Whether or not this show is up your alley, Rogue Artist Ensemble is a troupe to keep an eye on. You can expect great things out of them in the future.
Stranger, go no further in the town. You’ll not find younger or more expert girls at any other place besides my own. I am Sostrata, known beyond the sea.
See this one whose eyes are green as water on the grass. You do not wish her? Here are other eyes, black as the violet and hair three cubits long.
I have some better still. Xantho, open your cyclas. Stranger, her breasts are firm as quinces, touch them. And her lovely belly, you can see, bears the three Kyprian folds.
I bought her with her sister, who is not yet quite old enough for love, but who is her useful helper. By the two goddesses! you are of noble blood. Phyllis and Xantho, follow the gentleman!