Circle X’s Premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s “Lascivious Something” in LA (Review)
Back in 2002, when South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, commissioned Sheila Callaghan’s latest play, Lascivious Something, a Dionysian drama set on a Greek isle vineyard in November 1980, just as Reagan took office, audiences had not yet met with films such as Sideways and Bottleshock that wax witty and wise on the same general subject. Those living in wine country and those with a real passion for vino will never tire of this topic, but I, unfortunately, have. (Though I, admittedly, wasn’t someone that Sideways really spoke to in the first place.) None of this is to say that Callaghan’s play is a theatrical replication of these films because it certainly is not—after all, Callaghan puts her own commentative twist on the subject by creating in August, the lead male role, a winemaker who is an American ex-patriot and Marxist thinker, not a Yuppie wine snob. Nonetheless, timing, obviously, affects how (an artistic treatment of) a topic impacts audiences, and the wine wave has, arguably, lost its novelty, even if Callaghan’s added exploration of the residual effects of Reagan era politics represents a thoughtful departure.
Subject matter is only one of the many potential drawbacks to Callaghan’s script and Circle X Theatre Co.’s premiere production currently running at [Inside] the Ford in Los Angeles. Given the play’s fairly lengthy gestation period (some 8 years, which included development at SoHo Rep and a workshop production in 2006 at Cherry Lane Theatre) and given how much I enjoyed (reading) one of her earlier plays Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), I went into this show not just wanting, but expecting it to be awesome, fairly free of kinks and fairly full of insights and eccentricities (like those that so endeared me to Crumble). Before going further, I want to be clear that I saw Lascivious Something this past Friday in previews, so the creative team may tweak things further. In fact, I sat near director, Paul Willis, who was jotting notes throughout, so I imagine tweaking will happen, though I’m not sure how much any changes made at this point would significantly improve my experience.
Casting may have been the greatest stumbling block to this production. Only Olivia Henry as Daphne appeared both visibly suited to the part and at ease in it. Though the script calls for August (and for that matter, Liza, his former lover who comes looking for him in Greece) to appear weathered and old for his age, Silas Weir Mitchell was (made to appear) so physically unkempt that he was simply not believable as a love match for the strikingly beautiful Daphne. As Liza, Alina Phelan overcompensated at least the entire first half of the evening, causing the character to nearly collapse into the cliché American tourist (ignorant of other cultures, reared on McDonald’s, etc). As “Boy,” the tomboyish girl who assists August on the vineyard and also, suggestively, Daphne in the bedroom, Alana Dietze delivered a performance that can only be described as awkward; her mawkish grimaces and fretful physicality precluded her from evoking, alternately, sympathy and titillation as it seems her character is meant to.
Tom Ontiveros’ lighting design and John Zalewski’s sound design both effectively supplied the darker moments of Callaghan’s plot with an ominous mood. With the exception of the large watercolor inspired blue backdrop, Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set was largely naturalistic—and possibly too literal for a play that tries to create a dialectic between classical and contemporary Greek literature and culture. In addition, actors almost tripped several times when maneuvering on stage where it was elevated on the left to resemble a hillside and on the right to resemble an entry access to the upstairs.
The play itself contains some noteworthy formal and stylistic elements. One such stylistic element occurs later in the play, during the scene in which the actress Alina Phelan, who played “Boy,” doubled as August Jr., the deceased lovechild of Liza and August. In this dark, disturbing interlude, a single spotlight shone on August Jr. while he spoke aloud the contents of his suicide letter, so brimming with in-the-moment authenticity that he noted scratch outs and scribbles, occasionally revealing their meaning in anticipation of his mother’s curiosity about these omissions when she would eventually read it herself.
One noteworthy formal element that occurs several times throughout the play is the back-to-back, purposeful repetition of select scenes that would begin the same, but end quite differently—a feature rather reminiscent of one of my favorite movies, Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. With regard to these scene repeats in the play, the first rendering of a scene would be markedly more passion-driven and reminiscent of Greek tragic characterization in terms of the baseness, bizarreness, and sheer violence of a character’s response; in the second rendering, character responses would be more reason-driven, socially appropriate, and modern in sensibility. In one such scenario, pregnant Daphne asks her husband August if he wants to have sex with his old lover Liza: In the first performance of the scene, he openly admits that he does, and Daphne takes a utensil from the kitchen table and stabs herself in the stomach. In the second performance of the same scene, August assures her he doesn’t want to sleep with Liza and tragedy is averted. While this feature of the play was in and of itself among its more interesting ones, it did not entirely work, and I’m still trying to pinpoint why. It may be because, on the whole, whatever Callaghan was trying to accomplish by riffing on Greek tragedy, including legends about Dionysus, Zeus, and others, didn’t feel sufficiently artistically realized in production. Readers with more insights on this front feel free to shed some light. As a final sidenote, Callaghan’s play is in keeping with nearly every other play I’ve seen in the last year, featuring full (female) nudity (in the character, Liza) and depicting non-normative/non-heterosexual gender/sexual identity (in the character, Boy)–See my previous posts on “A Gay in Every Play.”
This spring Daniella Topol will direct a production of Lascivious Something at Women’s Theatre Project in NYC. This production will run from May 2-June 10. I would be interested to see the differences in concept and reception between the LA and NYC stagings of Callaghan’s play in order to better sort through my overall lukewarmness to what I just saw in LA.
Lascivious Something, produced by Circle X Theatre Co., opened March 27; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 & 7 pm; through May 1. Tickets: $12-$20 (pay what you can at all Sun. matinees). [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; 323.461.3673 or fordtheatres.org.