City Lit Theater Company

at the Chicago Cultural Center

“My visibility, made up of ridiculous legends, protects my invisibility,” wrote Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) in Journal d’un inconnu; elsewhere he noted, “I am a lie that always tells the truth.” The poet-playwright-novelist-designer-filmmaker, who usually revealed his emotions only through heavily coded symbolism in such works as Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, and the ballet Parade, exposed more of his true nature than usual in a short 1928 novel, Le livre blanc, inspired by his experiences as a teenager when he ran away from his home in suburban Paris to seek adventure in the sexual underworld of Marseilles. (Though the book was published anonymously, Cocteau was generally understood to be its author–and was formally acknowledged as the creator of the whimsically sensual woodcuts that illustrated it. But he was coy about claiming the book as his own: “I should prefer not to sign it,” he said in the magazine Sexual Digest in the late 1940s, “because then it would assume the form of autobiography, and I have not yet written my autobiography, which will be much stranger still.”)

Filled with charmingly antique obscenity (a penis is described as a “fabulous little underwater plant [that] reared up and threw its seed”), Catholic spirituality, ironic commentary on social hypocrisy, slightly flaky theorizing about androgyny, and quaint observations along the lines of “Pederast knows pederast as Jew knows Jew,” Le livre blanc candidly, if somewhat vaguely, recounts memories of the unnamed hero’s sexual awakening–spying on a handsome skinny-dipper as a child, being repelled by his schoolmates’ sexual horseplay because “it was a cheap parody of a type of love that my instinct respected,” “falsifying” his true nature as a teenager by bragging about girls–and a series of increasingly troubled adult relationships marked by deception, disillusion, and finally despair.

Running through the book are such themes as the desire of a lover not only to possess but to actually become his beloved, the narcissistic and strangely mystical fascination with mirrors, and the preoccupation with illusion and disguise. Most important is the morbidly romantic linking of youth, beauty, love, and death. The hero’s first major (but unconsummated) love is for Dargelos, an insolent, charismatic, slightly brutal schoolmate who dies mysteriously. Later the hero has an affair with a youth called only H., whose bisexuality and rebelliousness prompt physical violence that the hero painfully regrets when H. dies of an unnamed illness. (The situation recalls Cocteau’s tempestuous relationship with the brilliant writer Raymond Radiguet, who was Cocteau’s lover from the time he was 16–and Cocteau was 30–until he died of typhoid four years later.)

Finally seeking redemption in heterosexuality, the hero becomes engaged to an old friend–then falls in love with her brother, who commits suicide when the menage gets too intense. Exhausted by life, the hero sentences himself to emotional “exile”–but he emphasizes that his failings are human, not monstrous; condemns society’s lack of understanding; and calls upon the next generation to live by the credo “Love must be reinvented.”

Drawn to Cocteau as a sort of proto-gay liberationist, actor Marc Silvia and director Jerome Stauduhar have adapted Le livre blanc for City Lit Theater Company. The result of their effort, The White Paper, hews to the original text almost word for word (though, reprehensibly, City Lit fails to credit Margaret Crosland for her English translation). But it captures the spirit of its source only intermittently.

Ironically, given City Lit’s emphasis on staging works of literature, The White Paper works best when it relies least on words. That’s because the opium-addicted Cocteau was a highly visual writer, whose druggily dreamy images were intended to conjure up strong emotions. The most potent moments in City Lit’s show either complement or replace spoken narration with strong pictures, and the most moving scene is completely silent–when “Out of Luck,” a sailor picked up by the hero, awakens from postcoital sleep and touches his sleeping bedmate with a tenderness he’d never dare show in daylight. Almost as effective is a weird encounter in a bathhouse, as the hero–called J. in The White Paper–tries to make contact with an oblivious lover through the opaque glass of a two-way mirror. A running bit of business in which Silvia as J. illustrates the story by sketching silhouettes and torsos on three blank canvases that surround the otherwise bare stage inventively theatricalizes Cocteau’s woodcuts. And the two-person supporting cast–Fred Schleicher, perfectly cast as the sexy Dargelos and his successors in J.’s life, and Kim Werkman in a collection of cameos ranging from J.’s girlfriends to a transvestite cabaret singer to the Virgin Mary–deftly illuminate the characters who infiltrate J.’s self-centered world.

But too often The White Paper comes off as strangely bland. Though an impressive feat of memory, Silvia’s performance is deeply flawed: he delivers the nearly nonstop narration with a brisk efficiency that undercuts rather than intensifies the hallucinatory, fragmented text. Trying to keep the story moving, Silvia and director Stauduhar neglect the evocative moodiness of the prose; this denies the tale its gravity and sadness, except in rare moments like the ones mentioned. And while Stauduhar sometimes succeeds at revealing Cocteau’s droll humor–as in his confession to a sympathetic but wary priest (“The Jesuits are watching me closely,” the priest warns)–the semislapstick goofiness in the climactic suicide scene wrecks the dark emotional build of the story.

By no means a dull show, The White Paper is still less exciting than it should have been. But it may serve to acquaint audiences with a little-known aspect of one of modern art’s most intriguing figures: a giant who collaborated with the likes of Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Satie, and also a pioneering queer who (albeit anonymously) defied the hypocrisy of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” society.


KKT Productions

at Red Bones Theatre

Unveiled 50 years after Le livre blanc, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy addresses many of the same issues. Neither J. (living under France’s enlightened Napoleonic code) nor Torch Song’s Arnold Beckoff, a drag entertainer long past making any bones about being gay, is as concerned about outright oppression as he is about the grudging tolerance of a society whose contempt undercuts the potential for healthy gay relationships. Like J., Arnold is looking for love–and has a penchant for finding it in the worst possible places. Arnold’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Ed, like H. and like J. himself, is afraid of fully accepting his homosexuality. When Ed sets out to prove his bisexuality by marrying Laurel, Arnold finds solace with an ex-hustler named Alan; after Alan is killed by bat-wielding fag-bashers, Arnold adopts a gay teenager named David and extends a wary welcome when Ed seeks a reconciliation and the start of a gay household. Arnold’s careful construction of a neo-nuclear family as full and nurturing as the one he grew up in–but entirely gay–recalls Cocteau’s admonition to generations to come: “Love must be reinvented.”

That resilient romanticism–leavened with a healthy dose of self- deprecating humor–is the key to Torch Song’s enduring appeal. Though an unabashed statement of gay pride–and, in its last-act confrontation between Arnold and his disapproving lemon drop of a mother, an exorcism of homophobia and shame–Fierstein’s comedy-drama is also richly universal. Arnold is every ugly duckling in love with the wrong person; his showdown with his mom is the stuff of everybody’s painful growing-up. Ed is everybody who shied away from commitment; David is every kid caught between loving and rebelling against his parents; their awkward attempts at family bonding are marked by the same mistakes and victories as anyone else’s. Loaded with brilliant one-liners and an openheartedness that embraces joy and sadness as equally vital, Torch Song is an extraordinarily satisfying play.

Kyle Storjohann’s staging for KKT Productions reaffirms the strength of Fierstein’s script, thanks mainly to a resonant, expressive, and often very funny lead performance by Ed Huerta. His deft balancing of Arnold’s comic obsessiveness and poignant vulnerability provides a strong center for the production, whose several serious shortcomings are outweighed by the director’s and cast’s creativity and commitment. While the characters of Ed and Mrs. Beckoff have been weakened by the vagaries of casting–Patrick Causgrove lacks the macho sex appeal Ed needs to offset his thickheadedness, and Chris Callahan is far too young and tall to be Arnold’s tiny termagant mother–these actors nonetheless give these roles a distinctive individuality. So does Kathleen Halter as Arnold’s rival and mirror image Laurel (the two are tellingly costumed in matching flesh-colored smocks). Most problematic is Woodrow J. Bryant, who overplays Alan’s attention-seeking tics and ignores this whore-turned-model’s innate elegance. Far more successful is Jordan Leshtz, whose wisecracking, precocious David provides exactly the right energy as he nudges Arnold and Ed back together.

And Alexius P. McCauley offers an ingenious interpretation of Lady Blues, the torch singer whose intermittent numbers underscore the dynamics of various scenes. Written for a woman, Lady Blues works quite well as a man in drag here (especially given McCauley’s high, fluid tenor); and Storjohann has expanded the part so that Lady Blues appears not just in the first act (called “The International Stud”) but throughout the play, singing an interestingly varied repertoire that includes Fred Barton’s bawdy “Pour Me a Man.” Even the cheap-looking set and a sluggish second act, “Fugue in a Nursery” (which really does need incidental music to push the pace along), are easily overlooked in the face of the production’s virtues–especially Huerta’s strongly felt performance–and Fierstein’s remarkably durable script.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.