Live Bait Theater

By Albert Williams

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was hardly free of emotional involvements when she embarked on her romance with Auguste Heriot–the relationship that would inspire her novella Cheri. The turn-of-the-century French writer-actress was still married to (albeit separated from) her first husband and sometime collaborator, the novelist and boulevardier Henry Gauthier-Villars, as Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier note in their recently published biography, Creating Colette, Volume One: From Ingenue to Libertine, 1873-1913. She was also being kept by a lesbian lover, the marquise de Morny, a well-known cross-dresser and niece of Emperor Napoleon III who went by the deceptively demure nickname Missy. It was she, in fact, who introduced Colette to Auguste, a millionaire playboy several years Colette’s junior notorious for his habit of demanding farewell gifts from rich women when he left them.

An interesting web of relationships–and it became more intricate over the years that Colette and Auguste were involved: she divorced her first husband and took up with the man who would become her second, Henry de Jouvenel, editor of the newspaper Le matin (where Colette later served as theater critic). Clearly Colette defied traditional attitudes toward adultery, homosexuality, and May-September relationships. (In a society defined by sexist double standards, it was an extraordinary assertion of female equality and independence for a mature woman to sleep with a younger man–especially if she was the one who decided when the arrangement was over.) She and her well-heeled bohemian circle were obviously dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, but also to a deeply held ethic of personal freedom. They worshiped love while seeking to demystify it; they disdained conventional morality, considering hypocrisy an infinitely greater sin than infidelity; and they judged their romantic involvements by how much they taught them about themselves and about life.

So when Colette and Auguste parted, she tucked the experience away, then used it a decade later as the basis for Cheri, her 1920 tale of a middle-aged courtesan’s steamy, stormy affair with a callow younger man. Though Colette and Auguste were both in their 30s during their time together, Cheri enlarges the age difference–in part to emphasize the titular hero’s immaturity and in part, perhaps, to reflect Colette’s growing awareness of her own mortality as she approached 50. At any rate, the novella’s depiction of the tempestuous love between a youth in the first bloom of manhood and a woman old enough to be his mother is quintessential Colette–discreetly sensuous, wryly witty, touchingly tender, ironic yet free of cynicism.

These are not qualities in large supply among young artists today–which makes Live Bait Theater’s deliciously bittersweet stage version of Cheri all the more impressive. A superb collaboration between playwright Donald Gecewicz, director Susan Leigh, an excellent cast headed by Linda Reiter and Ian Novak, and designers Nicole Evangelista (costumes), Edward Thomas-Herrera (sound), David Tennenbaum (set), and Richard Norwood (lights), this production captures the book’s delicacy without ever becoming fussy or fluttery. With no hint of titillation or vulgarity, it’s more convincingly erotic than many productions resorting to nude sex scenes, and it establishes a leisurely, long-gone era even as it vibrates with emotional immediacy.

Set between 1896 and 1913, Cheri charts the relationship of Lea, a mature and much admired leader of the Parisian demimonde, and the son of her friend and fellow courtesan Charlotte Peloux. What begins as an adolescent’s impetuous experiment–the 18-year-old Cheri asks Lea for a kiss–turns into a six-year affair as he all but moves into her home. Cheri is Lea’s surrogate son and sex toy, acolyte and admirer, playmate and partner; she’s fonder of him than she ever expected to be but remains acutely aware of his immaturity–and of his inevitable departure. Their arrangement is understood to be temporary from the start; her role is to teach him the ways of women and the world, to groom him for marriage and manhood. “How long will you let me stay here with you?” Cheri asks. “Until I’m tired of you,” Lea replies, “or maybe until I understand you a little bit.”

Yet when Cheri gets engaged to Edmee, the virginal daughter of one of his mother’s friends, Lea finds herself unexpectedly wounded. And when Cheri realizes that he will not be able to continue his attachment to Lea after he marries, he’s crushed–like a child whose doting parent has suddenly kicked him out of the house.

Charting the twists and turns that part and reunite the couple, Cheri casts an unsentimental eye on its characters’ sentimental actions. Both Lea and Cheri, like the real-life figures on which they’re modeled, subscribe to a philosophy of free love and liberation yet find themselves struggling with almost irresistible feelings–physical longing, fear of loneliness, anxiety about growing old. Deploring possessiveness, they nonetheless succumb to it. This dissonance between their ideas and their emotions is as recognizable today as it was 80 years ago–and perhaps thousands of years before that. Their struggles with each other and within themselves are at once timeless and contemporary, elevating Cheri above the level of a complacent Masterpiece Theatre period piece.

Yet period detail is what gives the production its flavor while helping establish the characters’ credibility, as Live Bait turns its Wrigleyville storefront into the elegant demimonde of a century ago. An ingenious opening tableau transforms the exotic past into the electric present, as a scratchy old recording of Nelly Melba singing belle epoque composer Reynaldo Hahn’s “L’heure exquise” segues into Susan Graham’s voluptuous new recording of the same song. The simple set–a sitting room complete with chaise longue, writing desk, and French windows–suggests rather than simulates Lea’s luxurious lifestyle. But there’s nothing lacking in the ravishing costumes–a seemingly endless array of white lace, black velvet, and red brocade accessorized with pearls and parasols and topped off with an eye-popping assortment of flamboyantly feathered and flowered hats. The belle epoque never looked so belle, certainly not on so small a budget.

But bonnets, gowns, and opera capes are nothing if the people wearing them aren’t interesting. Cheri’s great strength is its beautifully played collection of intriguing, sexy, unapologetic eccentrics. Lauri Larson is sweetly mischievous as Cheri’s mother, the onetime concubine of a Turkish pasha who remains compulsively flirtatious in menopausal midlife. (“That little beast in there has died,” she says lightly. “But not its venom,” Lea responds.) Charlotte’s hilarious trio of poker partners are Margaret Kustermann as a stout and salty grandma whose penchant for young men makes Lea look like a piker (“I’d marry Guido like a shot, if only he were of age”); Susan Ferrara as an aging ballerina whose arms still flutter like a Maryinsky swan; and Sandra Storrer as a butch baroness, a dapper diesel dyke in men’s formal wear apparently modeled on Colette’s companion Missy. Julie Korman as the naive but crafty Edmee, Jake Rademacher as Cheri’s dissolute chum Desmond, and Clay Calvin as Lea’s brawny boxer boyfriend add further texture.

But the story focuses on Lea and Cheri, whom Linda Reiter and Ian Novak bring to rich, volatile life. Not exactly the “graceful demon” Colette describes, the slim, blandly pretty Novak reveals surprising depth in his mercurial portrayal of the unsettled, spoiled adolescent transformed into a complex man by the jumble of pleasure and pain he experiences, switching from bratty boy to cuddlesome coquet to swaggering cocksman in a heartbeat. Reiter, meanwhile, is nothing short of magnificent. Her Lea is gritty yet vulnerable, refined but unaffected, openhearted yet self-possessed. The tense set of her practiced smile is that of a life-loving, worldly-wise woman experiencing new emotions and fears; Reiter’s economical use of gesture and expression makes her climactic moment of self-recognition all the more stunning. Her acting is the onstage equivalent of Colette’s sensuous, scalpel-sharp prose, tenderly yet unflinchingly honest about human behavior. In this day of Monica and Barbara and Linda and Cokie–when self-serving sanctimony and exploitive scandalmongering masquerade as sexual candor–Cheri clears the air, a fresh breeze dispelling the stench of our current cultural atmosphere.

Theater teacher and actress Pearl Harand, who with her sister Sulie was featured in a 1996 cover story in this paper, died March 7 at the age of 84. Besides Sulie and Pearl’s daughters, Janice and Nora, and their families, Pearl is survived by the thousands of people who attended Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts in Wisconsin–a breeding ground for actors like Billy Zane and Jeremy Piven as well as directors, producers, and writers in all walks of film and theater life. (Pearl was just as proud, however, of the kids who went on to become doctors and teachers; she was particularly touched that in her final months of ill health her physician was a former camper.) I went to and worked at Harand for several years during the mid-60s and found Pearl to be a formidable woman: huge hearted if sometimes overbearing, she was an enormously talented performer (her one-woman rendition of Fiddler on the Roof was an astonishing feat rich in Yiddish flavor) and an endlessly giving teacher. What I didn’t recognize until the last few years, when I was lucky enough to renew my acquaintance with her, was her wisdom, insight, and salty sense of humor. Pearl was a great spirit, and we are poorer for her passing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Suzanne Plunkett.