Seattle’s Alice B. calls itself “a gay and lesbian theatre for all people.” Nothing the group has produced in its nine-year history better exemplifies what that phrase might mean than Sub Rosa.
Sub Rosa started out with writer-director Nikki Appino’s desire to explore the material and atmosphere of German cabaret between the World Wars, and the show that closed Alice B.’s 1992-93 season in June still exhibited faint suggestions of that notion: The shabby interior of the Pioneer Square Theater was got up like a grotty basement after-hours club, and there was enough eye-shadow and leather on the boys and girls strolling among the cafe tables to satisfy a Bob Fosse, if not a Reza Abdoh.
But from the first slashing notes of Jim Ragland’s score and the first blizzard of projected images and texts across Dan Corson’s constructivist set, Sub Rosa all but abandoned the much-trodden ground of ’20s Weimar for a far deeper dig: down to the very roots of Western secular mysticism.
The tale of the love of Cupid and Psyche–the narrative to which Sub Rosa anchored its excavation–first turns up embedded in the florid second-century Latin of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Anthropologists say that the story of the three princess sisters, a mysterious nocturnal bridegroom and terrible trials leading to a happy ending is the oldest example of pure folktale in the Indo-European tradition. By Apuleius’ time, the fable had accumulated five centuries worth of philosophical baggage, with the final wedding of Cupid (Eros) and Psyche (Soul) representing the mystical union of spirit and flesh as envisioned by the later followers of Plato.
Neo-Platonism pervades the Jewish Cabbala, the musings of medieval Muslim clerics, the output of Renaissance thinkers like Pico della Mirandola and Renaissance painters like Botticelli (his Primavera is neo-Platonist allegory throughout). But when Latin ceased to be the universal language of the West, the West lost access to its native non-Christian mystical tradition. In Sub Rosa, Nikki Appino and co-writer-director Kristen Newbom put us back directly in touch with these lost mythic roots, and the sizzle of understanding is immediate and electric.
At first it seems there must be some point to the role of Venus (Cupid’s mom) being played in slenderly sinuous beaded-scarlet drag by Christopher Johnson, while spunky, randy Cupid is rendered by a boyish but unmistakably feminine Alyce LaTourelle. Only when the show’s over does one’s spinning brain have leisure to realize that the cross-gender casting doesn’t matter–or rather that it matters only because it doesn’t matter. The searching soul at the center of this story may be embodied by the amply feminine Amy Perry, but it doesn’t have a gender.
Stage evocations of deep myth tend to be solemn even when not somnolent. But Sub Rosa moves like an amphetamine vaudeville, keeping the surface playful and trusting its audience to make the deep connections. Perry plays Psyche (“Kitty” in this version) as Marilyn-through-the-looking-glass. As both her wicked sisters simultaneously, Sarah Harlet turns raging schizophrenia to theatrical account. Bodies fly from high platforms to flop on mattresses in the audience’s lap, turn to shadow puppets shriveling and inflating on a moving screen, clamber, gallop, mince, strut. Seashells turn telephone, a fish-tank bursts into flame: Hellzapoppin’ with a higher purpose.
The narrative rush is relieved from time to time by meditative episodes that seem almost overheard, messages from altogether elsewhere. In form they’re letters, between one Miss Spoon (Johnson again) and a Mr. Knife (John Holyoke, who also plays the “the General,” Miss Kitty’s Zeust-the-Thunder father). In contrast to the bulk of the show, on-the-razzle and in-your-face, these letters are almost repressed in tone, and all the more passionately felt for that fact. It’s as if two wartime lovers, divided by half the world and the censor, are trying to convey all their carnal longing through the dry medium of everyday words. In the last moments of the play, the two worlds, of Knife and Spoon, of soul and flesh, come together in a shadow image of a power far beyond words.
Mounted on a vestigial budget, Sub Rosa looked like a million. It came together almost entirely in the rehearsal hall, with its technical and visual overlay created to fit what came out of workshop, not, as usual, the other way around.
Irreverent and breathless
There have been precedents for this kind of theatrically adventurous work at Alice B.: Rick Rankin’s “deconstruction of American history” Louisiana Purchase in 1988, and the plotless exploration of the links between the sexual dominance and political violence in Governing Bodies of 1989, both directed by Rankin’s Alice B. co-founder Susan Finque. But the most inspiring thing about Sub Rosa was the way it transcended the usual boundaries of “gay theatre” without compromising the company’s essential mission. In its wild, irreverent and breathless way, Sub Rosa sprang from the same impulses as Plato’s Symposium. And perhaps the comparison is less far-fetched than it appears: After all, Plato disguised his profound exploration of the multivalent mystery of love as a record of a drunken dinner-party.