THE ADORED AND THE ADORNED
Do sex and politics ever mix? For millions of gays and lesbians this is not an academic question.
Sometimes it seems as if no mere "orientation" can ever bind gays and lesbians together. They're a sexual minority defined not by choice but by biology that cuts across sexes, classes, races, ages, religions, occupations, fetishes, and politics. Though faced with homophobia, censorship, and AIDS discrimination, the gay male/lesbian/drag queen/leather/bisexual/separatist community seldom speaks with one voice (except during Pride Month or on clear questions of civil rights). Since the coming of the intolerant, divisive gospel of political correctness, solidarity seems even harder to achieve.
Gay and lesbian art necessarily reflects these conflicting agendas and constituencies. An off-night presentation in Bailiwick Repertory's Pride Performance Series, The Adored and the Adorned is a 50-minute performance piece that fuses music, video, and text in order to show, as press materials put it, how "the gay world both thrives on and is diminished by explicit sensuality, which often serves only to mask or shield the important issues of this life."
Created by Beth Tanner (whose performance offerings include Sharp Objects and Yep, or the Inability to Learn Something Very Simple), The Adored and the Adorned irreverently suggests that sensuality is more than just a tender trap--it's a grotesque simplification of real life. Lesbians have suffered most, Adored implies, from this reduction of human complexity--have been objectified and eroticized out of their humanity and into symbols of an outlaw sensuality.
The androgynously clad cast depict love objects in the throes of obscure sexual obsessions: a woman (Tanner) in leather gaucho attire and two drag queens in chic evening leather (Gurlene Hussey and Joan Jett Blakk). Backing them up are two musicians--saxophonist Camille Rochas and guitar player K.B. Daughtry in scanty cycle-slut leather. To provide color contrast to all this darkness, the costumes and furniture are accented with purple and gold and the stage is strewn with cut flowers.
To steep us in the musk of sex, Adored uses lascivious incantations like this vaguely sadomasochistic come-on, "Relax, confess, consent, submit," repeated at various volumes as a lesbian porn film flickers overhead. Intoned in semidarkness are more pornographic phrases--the contradictory "You can suck my dick but don't touch me," and the rhapsodic "All I want to do is to fuck you, that's all."
If you can decipher what comes out of the echo-chamber sound system, much of Tanner's cryptic, hit-and-run imagery seems about as confrontational as a sex-show barker on Bourbon Street. To the saxophone's wail, Hussey slinks around in Jeffrey Elliot's leather gown like a funereal duenna, lip-synching a monotone version of "My Secret Love." He mockingly intones such puzzlers as "Did people in the Dark Ages know they were in the Dark Ages?" I guess that's meant as a slam at us.
Urging an imagined audience to "stop the masquerade" and to eschew the "flight of the fantasy of death," Tanner conveys both the tease and the torture of the sexually addicted: "I've seen you in the future, and you're running like hell in the opposite direction." When she settles into a role, it's that of a wiseass dominatrix who puts an abrupt stop to the fantasies she inspires; she calls us "voyeurs / in a house of carnage." At one point she uses a whip to snuff out three candles, which may represent the symbolic extinguishing of some audience libidos. Or maybe she did it just because she can do it. You never know with performance art.
In "The Flight of Stairs," Hussey and Blakk (the latter darkly festive in Jon Darmour's strapless, hip-hugging leather accessories) titillate the audience with make-believe gossip--"Let's dish"--and launch an opaque inventory of the dangers and demands of drag and hustling: "Virtue is not lost that's given away," purrs Blakk, and "Beauty suffers." Blakk further entices the audience with half-promises of carnal delight: "A kiss is not a contract," and "My obsession is your seduction." Parodying a decadent cabaret act, Hussey lurches into a tentative tango to the lyrics from "Good Love."
In "The Queen and I," Tanner cites her mother's encouragement to shock complacency as often as she can. She concludes this leather recital with an ironic reference to all God's children getting shoes (maybe a dig at Americans who demand guilt-free sex as if it were a birthright?).
Aside from enigmatic descriptions of erotic reckonings, Tanner's exploration contains little that's accessible and a lot of sensual posturing that seems to chase its own tail. It's no new lesson that compulsive sex can be as isolating as it is intense, or that promiscuity is a drag.
The performers, especially Hussey and Blakk, manage to remain both incendiary and cool. (Blakk certainly knows about grace under pressure; this spring he ran for mayor on the platform that Chicago needs a good queen.) Rochas plays a determined saxophone, and Daughtry's sepulchral sound composition suits this subterranean show.
More than Tanner seems to know, The Adored and the Adorned is suitable gay/lesbian art: it addresses a multifaceted community with verbal and physical images as varied as its audience. (No one is excluded by any Eurocentric hint of rationality or coherence either.) It doesn't matter that the material is arbitrary and anarchic: this frustrating work is bound to provoke a different response from each observer. It's a new concept--theater as Rorschach test.