“Haven’t you ever seen a ding-a-ling?”
Waiting for the coveted monkey bars, I stared doe-eyed at my fifth-grade suitor. No, I hadn’t (turns out, it’s not a delicious Hostess product.) At age 11, amidst the cesspool of public school recess, I was introduced to the racy concept of sexual innuendo.
That idea is all too present in the Yale Cabaret’s latest production, “Ermyntrude and Esmeralda,” adapted and directed by Hunter Kaczorowski DRA ’14. But don’t be fooled by the title’s Elizabethan echoes. More fitting, I think, is the play’s self-styled moniker: “naughty puppet show.”
The titular characters converse through a series of monologues, as they share their written correspondences with the audience. The conversation is aggressively relatable, a Victorian display of “Dawson’s Creek” soapiness. Esmeralda (Ceci Fernandez DRA ’14) gossips with insatiable adolescent energy about potential husbands. Ermyntrude (Sophie von Haselberg DRA ’14) dishes about her star-crossed-lover attraction to Henry, the dashing footman.
The two pen pals stumble to crack the code of silence surrounding S-E-X. With endearing naiveté, the two form their own sexual vernacular. Ermyntrude relates how her “pussycat” purrs for Henry. Esmeralda, eyes wide and mouth agape, wonders about the inner workings of each man’s “bow-wow.”
The stage, small and simple, mirrors the organic nature of the show’s dialogue. Esmeralda and Ermyntrude each sit at a desk, writing from their respective households, sometimes standing to gaze out at the audience. It’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a split-screen phone conversation, and the characters’ physical closeness on stage fits the intimacy of their relationship.
Shadow puppets periodically emerge in the background, with black figures dancing about in eight scattered picture frames. These scenes have a medieval simplicity to them, serving as natural complements to the dialogue.
With each appearance of shadow-pussycats and shadow-bow-wows, the sexual tension heightens, as when one cat silhouette spawns out of the lap of Ermyntrude’s puppet self. The puppetry adds an extra layer of nuance and insight into the character’s imaginations, directed with a precise amount of humor and economy.
It’s easy to attribute the show’s sexiness to its understatement. The staging and the wardrobe, so British in its formality, successfully underlines the forbidden nature of the dialogue.
“Ermyntrude and Esmeralda” entertains with witty wordplay and well-delivered innuendo, but it is more than mere ramblings à la “Sex and the City.” Read the script literally and the show dips into the prosaic pot of romantic conundrums — is love compatible with marriage? Why should it matter who we love.
Occasionally the characters slump into this predictability, though usually only for a line or two (as when Esmeralda vacuously asks, in contemplating her romantic life, “Have I finally discovered what I’m looking for?”). But at times, the play hints at larger societal issues, as the girls unwittingly question contemporary moral conventions about love through their innocence and idealism. When Esmeralda discovers two men in the act of lovemaking, she fails to understand her father’s repulsion toward this socially unacceptable behavior.
The narrative format compensates for any tiredness in the show’s message. The production is billed as a “Come Celebrate Valentine’s Day” affair, a day that thrives on the imitation of Baz Luhrmann-worthy flamboyance. It’s a holiday — and I say this with the least cynicism possible — of pomp over substance. “Ermyntrude and Esmeralda” succeeds in resisting that empty flashiness. Of course, our inquisitive heroines sacrifice no sense of theatricality in the process (Fernandez sometimes edges perilously close to melodrama in her imitation of teenage wonder). At its heart, the production challenges the gratuitous explicitness of modern expressions of romance.
In each sexual suggestion, in every shadow puppet scene, the show typifies the characters’ emotional curiosities in the most comedic way. Even as Esmeralda and Ermyntrude edge toward their prescribed fates, they still desperately want to understand the simplest concepts regarding sex. The Cabaret’s adaptation does not oversimplify this plot, but instead provides a masterful representation of the dilemmas weighing on the protagonists’ shoulders. The answers to their questions, it seems, are as hazy as the shadows projected on the stage.