Scarlet Confessions: The Infamous and the Innocent, a Musical Diary

J. O’Reilly Productions at Victory Gardens Theater


Nicole Garneau and Big Smith at Preston Bradley Center for the Arts

“Love demands expression,” explains the nameless, genderless narrator in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. “It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no.”

I finished Winterson’s sublime book moments before taking my seat at Jamie O’Reilly and Michael Smith’s latest musical collaboration, so perhaps I was emotionally primed. But it would take a flinty soul indeed not to be moved by Scarlet Confessions: The Infamous and the Innocent, a Musical Dairy, a beautifully performed song cycle on love and its infinite, messy ramifications and manifestations. By turns sacred, profane, silly, profound, deeply sad, and richly colored, the show provides a prismatic portrait of hearts on fire and on ice, of consciences alternately numbed by grief and inflamed by injustice.

O’Reilly and Smith last teamed up for Hello Dali: From the Sublime to the Surreal, a tribute to art and its evolving role in human expression that ran off and on for two years. Directed, like Scarlet Confessions, by Paul Amandes, that production was overtly theatrical, with a decidedly anarchic tone (thanks in part to Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus’s contributions), while Scarlet Confessions is more of a cabaret concert. But thanks to O’Reilly’s crystal soprano, Smith’s virtuoso guitar playing and world-weary voice, and Anne Hills’s honey-soaked alto, the songs and stories shine through with clarity and integrity. Director Amandes also performs, giving a wry, folksy twist to several of the pieces with his guitar and voice, and Al Ehrich plays a solid bass.

As the title hints, the show is about exposure and revelation. To that end the evening is structured as a metaphysical journey in song and story–from innocence through bitter experience to hard-earned wisdom and compassion. A prelude song based on Romeo and Juliet (lyrics by Hills) tells us to “carry forth these broken things.” A snippet from Shaw’s Saint Joan is incorporated into a somber rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc” that illuminates the Maid of Orleans’ supreme love for the divine and belief in redemption. A less savory sacrifice is depicted with chilling intensity in Hills’s reading of the traditional “Down by the Greenwood Sideo,” in which a mother takes a knife to her three children. Interspersed with excerpts from a Tribune news account on Marilyn Lemak’s trial, the song provides a blunt counterpoint to Hallmark sentiments about motherly love.

There’s plenty of wit mixed in with the angst. O’Reilly delivers a hilariously arch interpretation of Cole Porter’s “Allez-Vous-En,” where her attempts to dismiss a would-be suitor only reveal her eagerness to be wooed. Smith pays loving tribute to his mother in “Catholic School Heaven,” in which she writes a letter excusing him–and the rest of the Smith family–from the grim version of the hereafter promised by the nuns.

The second act begins with “The Tale of Raven and Viola,” a Victorian-style shadow-puppet piece by Jennifer Friedrich and Damien Hinojosa that uses an old-fashioned paper cranky to tell the story of a jealous girl who drowns her sister and the father who finds a downright creepy way to preserve the girl’s remains. But then the theme shifts from stories of personal passion and retribution to a more universal portrayal of how quickly hearts can turn bitter and how necessary compassion is. Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War” captures the just-below-the-surface disturbances of the Weimar Republic. Smith’s “Crazy Mary” pays tribute to a lost soul, the local lunatic who is the butt of children’s jokes. And the evening ends with the most compassionate revelation of all, rendered with quiet intensity in Phil Ochs’s folkie classic “There but for Fortune.” Prisoners, drunks, lovers, and losers–our fortunes may differ, but Smith and O’Reilly’s creation reminds us that we are united by our need for dreams and passions.

Passion is a hallmark of Big Smith and Nicole Garneau’s work, but their latest collaboration, Bloodrut, lacks the clarity of purpose found in Scarlet Confessions. The color red figures prominently in this drumming-and-movement meditation on menstruation: A glass vial drips red liquid on a white mattress, upon which director and principal performer Garneau repeatedly somersaults until her white clothing is saturated. Small red globules onstage turn out to be beets. (Without giving anything away, let me say that the use to which they are put gives new meaning to the term borscht belt.)

According to the program, the aim of the show is to “banish menstrual shame.” That’s all well and good, but outside of one or two close calls I’ve never felt my menstrual cycle needed celebrating. Indeed, the proliferation of TV ads for feminine products (including potions intended to deal with hormonally induced mood swings) probably indicates that as a society we’re a little too comfortable discussing menstruation. Julie Burchill, the devastatingly funny columnist for the Guardian (and subject of the recent West End show Julie Burchill Is Away) addressed that issue head-on in a recent column, in which she took to task a young woman who produces a zine called Flow: The Magazine for Women Who Bleed. Wrote Burchill, “Be honest, ladies; do you feel embarrassed and oppressed by society’s denial of your monthly cycle–or do you want to kill some advertising bastard when a minor and boring physical glitch is splashed all over the media in order to make some parasitical scumbag even more money?”

Garneau’s way of dealing with her topic is, curiously, by focusing on the plight of a molested woman in a southwestern jail who slashed her wrists and wrote the names of her assailants on the walls with her blood. It’s an undeniably disturbing story, reenacted with a long roll of white paper and red ink, but what it has to do with menstrual shame is unclear. Garneau and the members of Big Smith (Jane Haldiman, Katherine Klein, and Anne Statton) deliver tough and lively drum and vocal performances, and I particularly admired their cunning vocal arrangements of traditional songs like “Go Down You Blood Red Roses” and “Red Apple Juice.”

But Bloodrut doesn’t reveal anything about women’s menstrual cycles that hasn’t been broadcast since at least the first appearance of Our Bodies, Ourselves. (Gosh, did you know some women actually feel sexy during their period?) And using menstruation as a defining marker for feminine experience comes dangerously close to the biological determinism that feminists have fought against forever. In a booklet of quotes and factoids accompanying the performance, Garneau cites one Demetra George, who maintains in her book Mysteries of the Dark Moon: The Healing Power of the Dark Goddess that the “denial and rejection of menstruation is central to the excruciating pain and discomfort that many women experience prior to and during their period.” With all due respect to Ms. George, that sounds like a kinder and more New Age way of saying “It’s all in your head, sweetie.” Me, I prefer to take some ibuprofen and get on with more important things.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Iwona Biederman, Seth Thompson.