Sappho in Love
By Kerry Reid
Chicago writer Paula Kamen in her recent report on young women and sex, Her Way, coined the expression “superrat” to designate “a new breed of sexual individualists” among the fairer sex. With all due respect to Kamen, she’s about 2,500 years late with that insight. Sappho was the first superrat, voicing female desires with unapologetic abandon in odes to the pleasures of both beautiful girls and nature on the island of Lesbos.
Lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage fleshes out Sappho’s legend–and a few of her poems–in her deliciously comic, off-kilter Sappho in Love, one of 13 productions in the Pride 2001 series at Bailiwick Repertory. (Gage appears solo in her popular–and more somber–The Second Coming of Joan of Arc for two performances only, June 17 and 18.) Performed by a cast of 16 women under the nimble direction of Shifra Werch, this production delivers a charming, affectionate portrait of young women coming to terms with their longings–for both independence and romantic fulfillment.
Gage’s script meanders more than it should to make its points, which are obvious, and there are a few wooden scenes and tentative performances. But Sappho in Love succeeds as a sly, goofy, lighthearted take on the (sometimes false) choices a girl faces when she comes of age. The tension between the spheres of love and work and between love and domestic harmony is represented by a power struggle among three goddesses. Aphrodite plans to thwart her arch rival–the celibate goddess of the hunt, Artemis–by drugging her with nectar (the Lesbos equivalent of date-rape “roofies”). For the dipsomaniacal Hera, goddess of the hearth, staying lit on Aphrodite’s nectar is the only way she can retain her moony belief in monogamy and domestic bliss.
Aphrodite’s slave Persuasion harbors a hopeless passion for Artemis. (“The most unavailable person in the entire universe, and that’s who the slave of Love decides to crush out on,” Persuasion moans.) Persuasion runs away and, disguised, becomes the sole pupil in Artemis’s “survivalist school for girls,” meant to divert innocent gals from the decadent ways of Sappho and onto the path of hearty self-reliance. But just as Artemis realizes she loves her pupil, Persuasion decides to adopt the solitary life of a huntress. Meanwhile, Sappho has her hands full juggling the demands of her art and her heart.
Gage clearly intends to pay homage not only to Sappho but to such Shakespearean comedies of love and mutable identity as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. Her conclusion–that both love and work must have their due–is irritatingly pat. But getting there has its pleasures. Kelli Strickland’s Sappho is an androgynous, fickle sprite attracted most strongly to Gongyla, her longtime lover, when the latter threatens to leave her. Margaret A. Dunn as Artemis is a stolid Amazonian figure with wild red hair; watching this rock of a woman crumble in the face of unexpected love is rather marvelous. Amanda Amadei’s Persuasion is wistful and self-aware as the audience’s representative. Liz Stewart’s Aphrodite leaves no scenery unchewed in her rampage: occasionally she has the wild-eyed look of Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond. On the other end of the spectrum, Robin M. Hughes is too soft-spoken and uncertain in her reading of Gongyla for us to understand why Sappho is so taken with her.
The most delightful performance is Chris Covell’s as Timas, an eager hayseed from Crete whose actions set the final series of confrontations in motion. Covell’s gift for physical comedy finds terrific expression in Timas’s clumsy seduction of Atthis, one of Sappho’s pupils. Covell’s baby dyke, with her naive, unabashed worship of the island of Lesbos as a sexual Eden, stands in for everyone who’s ever fled a small town seeking excitement, love, and sex in the city.
Of course, same-sex love has suffered centuries of censure since the Greeks. Diann Russell’s Prism, a world premiere, traces a group of gay men from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, though she works in references to the 1998 hate-crime slaying of Matthew Shepard. Moving back and forth in time, Russell’s play is sometimes difficult to follow–the audience has to determine the era based on the characters’ clothing and such narrative clues as a reference to protests against Anita Bryant and to the election of George Moscone as the gay-friendly mayor of San Francisco.
A larger problem is that we don’t see enough of the transformations in Russell’s main character for them to be believable. At the outset of the play, Tony (Randy Goetz) is a closeted married man with an infant son. He meets for regular card games with three gay friends (who call themselves “homosexuals,” of course, since this is the 50s). The four form a cell of the early gay-rights group the Mattachine Society (the name derived from an Arabic word for the practice of masking oneself). After a while the deeply conflicted Tony leaves the group. But when his fellow married man Larry (Mitch Hudson) is arrested for soliciting sex from another man, Tony comes clean to his anguished wife, Angela (Shana Goodsell)–and loses all contact with his son in the divorce agreement. In a classic example of telling instead of showing, we then learn of Tony’s return to Mattachine only when he meets Larry in drag at a bar (the Stonewall). Larry tells Tony that he wishes he could have seen him dragging his tail between his legs at his first Mattachine meeting after outing himself. Well, so would we.
As it is, Russell fails to show why Tony outs himself, why he joins Mattachine again, and why he lives as a near celibate until beginning an unlikely romance with a young African-American drag queen, Artis/Minetta (Jamal Brooks-Hawkins). Goetz’s performance is understated to a fault, except when he mischievously begins singing “You Made Me Love You” at an early gay-rights rally. At that point the other Mattachine members object, insisting that they must be “just like everyone else.” The only one to join his song is a lesbian, played by Alexis Klossner as the Rose Marie of the Mattachines.
Scott Olson’s glacial pacing doesn’t help. To her credit, Russell is trying to illustrate a huge, critically important chunk of 20th-century gay history. But she rarely gets beyond the broadest brush strokes. The tensions between public and private life implicit in the struggle for gay rights never feel as overpowering and vital as they must for a drama like this to catch fire. Prism reflects some fascinating rays of light, but overall the picture is frustratingly dim.