As I walked through the entry way of the Kingston Mines Theater to a late night performance of Whores of Babylon, I found in reading the various enlarged reprints of articles and reviews of the production posted on the walls that (oh no!) I was in for an "experience in pure theater," a "poly-scenic orchestration of various lietmotifs" involving the "problematic character of sex" and the rituals surrounding it. I groaned. I had come anticipating, hoping for at least, an evening of good, funny, erotic camp—some laughs, some skin, a virtuoso female impersonation or two, a la the Cockettes, and, if not a lavish production certainly an unpretentious one.
But, no, I was about to come face to face with less than "pure theater." I have never liked that term; it is not only meaningless, as if Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov and the O'Niell of Long Day's Journey into Night were somehow less than "real" theater simply because they employ more conventional elements of language, character, and plot for "straight" dramatic or thematic effect rather than more surreal "theatrics" intended to assault the audience in a more immediate and elemental way and therefore somehow more "real"; but, even more important the term is too often used as a means of elevating such theatrics to the level of metaphysics. This not only makes for very sloppy and shallow metaphysics, but most of the time it also means that the mere fact of all those "Wild," "Sensational" goings-on, that they're there in the show at all, becomes so important that the people involved in the production don't much care whether the theatrics really work or not. And when that happens, they usually don't.
Whores of Babylon is not so much "pure theater" as it is an attempt at primarily physical theater, relying almost exclusively on the lowest and most basic types of theater—slapstick, pornography, Grand Guignol, dance, various light and sound effects, pop and rock music. That the play has restricted itself to this type of elemental, sensual appeal isn't necessarily bad; it could be a great deal of fun if it's done well. The problem is that if it's done only on a mediocre level, it becomes very deadly indeed. Too much of the farce and the bits of sexual business, too many of the scenes in Whores of Babylon refuse to be anything more than mediocre. Too much of its is just not very funny or shocking or in anyway theatrically affecting.
It's hard to believe a comic spectacle of sexual slapstick with Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Frankenstein, Superboy, an Emerald Empress out of Flash Gordon, and a cosmic sex maniac named Mano could be so pedestrian. But the verbal humor is for the most part just jokey (Adam: "You know, there was a time when we didn't have to worry about death"; Eve; "Oh Adam, you promised you wouldn't say anything more about that"), or relies too much on the mere fact of sex to achieve its tension and get its laughs, just like those coy, banal captions on the pictures of nude women in cheap girlie magazines. As if all you have to do to make Samson funny is to give him three Delilah's (count 'em) to gawk at and feel up, or that all you have to do is to make Superboy hilarious is to outfit him with a hug phallus and then have him look blankly around while the audience howls.
It's not that the humor is so gross or low as to be inapprehensible, it's just that most of the performers don't have the sense of style or delivery to make this kind of thing work, to sustain the humor after the initial shock, to take the material, which is nothing, and make something theatrical out of it. One notable exception is the Delilah in white, who at one point has a speech eulogizing Frankenstein; it begins "There's something to be said for Frankenstein, and I'm not sure what it is … " It goes downhill from there, but the performer has complete control over body and voice, a poise and grace that is essential to the physical wit of the piece, which involves nothing less than establishing and maintaining a stage presence in the midst of a dramatic vaccum.
This same kind of grace and poise, of the performer's sense of himself physically is just as important in the more obvious bits of slapstick, which become less physical, less humorously gross when performed grossly, with complete physical abandon. And it's important to the play as a whole since in its deliberate emphasis on the physical and "aesthetic" rather than the more conventionally dramatic forms, it's refusal to establish a dramatic context within which the actors can define themselves on stage, means that the fate of the production as a whole rests solely on the ability of each and every one of the performers to establish and maintain. Only one manages to do it once in the hour and a half of Whores of Babylon. And that's not enough. Not nearly.