Theater is always an act of voyeurism: its pleasure comes from watching others expose themselves. It's also an act of compromise, as even the most poetic playwrights must concede to the form's physical and financial constraints. And Porno, a new play by writer-director Sean Graney, is all about voyeurism and compromise, as a talentless writer-director struggles to outmaneuver a perverted producer and film an erotic but not pornographic version of Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage. In this provocative Side Project staging, theater views itself in a ridiculously unflattering and ultimately disturbing light.
This two-act opens with the screenwriter-director, Ernie, rehearsing a cast of five variously horny, awkward, brain-dead, and overeager performers in a paneled, shag-carpeted basement. He hopes that his version of the great love story of Dido and Aeneas, filtered through Marlowe's 1594 play, will be his masterpiece. In Graney's lyrical, childlike blank verse, Ernie calls the tale "that magical something hoo humdingy / That's beyond explanation." But the performers are in it for the money, the drugs and booze, and the sex. When they discover in the first act that the unseen producer's cash is counterfeit, they begin drinking themselves really stupid.
The story might seem like a collegiate goof, but Graney makes Ernie a rounded, pathetic character whose life has "turned out wrong." He lives for one thing: to restore his sense of self-worth by re-creating a mythic love tragedy. But he has no money--or talent. He can get backing only from a mysterious German producer, who insists on making porn. Considering the sensuousness of Marlowe's verse, Ernie is willing to compromise. Then the producer turns up in the second act and completely takes over.
Ernie's script is awful, as we learn in the uninterrupted 45-minute scene that constitutes the first act: "Ever since my husband died / Many men have tried to explore my fleshy vagina / But the emotional pain is too great of a risk," Dido laments. The act comes across partly as giddy farce, with Ernie battling his incompetent, bickering cast--one actor has to stop rehearsing so he can take an enormous dump. But the humor's undercut by threatening touches: all the booze is iridescent green, the bathroom is under constant video surveillance, and one disturbingly volatile actor, Jef, keeps attacking his female costars when he's not randomly pulling out his penis.
While the first act is often bizarre, the second quickly turns menacing. Though the producer wears a full bunny suit and lederhosen, he's clearly a dangerous man, eliciting fear in everyone with the smallest of gestures. Saying barely a word, he forces the actors to rehearse a revised version of the screenplay that caters to his fetishes, which become increasingly perverse. A reality that's already warped cracks open to reveal a rapacious, libidinous dementia, and Porno becomes a nightmare parable about art horrifyingly corrupted by compromise.
Graney shows a sure hand as director, getting the sort of subtle, elastic performances from his cast that can accommodate the script's vast stylistic shifts. Some stretches in the first act get long, and others in the second are momentarily opaque, but overall he maintains the momentum despite the play's increasingly circuitous path.
In the final ten minutes Graney pushes the script's perversions to appalling extremes, as the producer forces the performers into monstrous acts. This almost unwatchable conclusion will strike some as gratuitous, and it may well be: if Porno is a cautionary tale about compromising one's artistic vision, that point has been made long before the final assault is unleashed. But the conclusion does bring the play's dark themes down to viscera--the brutality of corruption becomes a kick in the stomach. From the seething responses of some around me on opening night, many will condemn Graney for this affront. But perhaps there is value in being disturbed by things that are genuinely disturbing, even when they're only make-believe.
When: Through 6/11: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM
Where: Side Project Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis