Rarely do Shakespearean sonnets remind us that the Bard too must have screwed, shat and pissed.
This week’s Yale Cabaret production, “By Ill Be Cured,” presents all three plus neuroticism, as we are reminded that love is just as agonizing as it is blissful. Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner and writer/actor Eric Bogosian (Pulitzer nominee but obviously more notable as the venerable Capt. Ross on “Law and Order: SVU”) reinterpret Shakespearean sonnets 75 and 118, respectively, as individual scenes in life’s bad romances — not to be confused with Lady Gaga’s most recent single.
The texts synthesized by Kushner and Bogosian bear little stylistic similarity to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Presented independently, the two play like standalone scenes. In this production, true to the 2009-’10 Cabaret’s mission to challenge both performers and audiences alike, every actor but one are technical students at the Drama School — ranging from theater managers to sound producers — challenged to venture outside their techie comfort zones.
The first work presented is Bogosian’s “Bitter Sauce.” Opening with an angsty girl pop anthem, a wedding-dress clad Rengin (Meghan Pressman DRA ’10) dances and downs Maker’s Mark, steeling herself for a confrontation with boyfriend Herman (Max Moore DRA ’11).
Rengin and Herman have wedding plans, but muscle-bound biker Red (Drama intern Nicholas Pope) has wedged himself between them. She needs a grounding force, a man who roughs her up a bit and reminds her that she is still beautiful and wanted. Consistently self-loathing, Pressman does a fantastic job of convincing the audience that Rengin really does believe Herman is too good for her and apt to leave her at any moment. Herman, portrayed by Moore, thinks the same about Rengin but plays it differently.
Moore is the only acting student in the entire production, but his portrayal of Herman seems to slide in its believability. It remains unclear to the audience if Bogosian’s text is incredibly anxious, or if Moore is as nervous as his sweaty palms and forced movements suggest. He shuffles across the stage obsessively and compulsively fixing all of the props in hilariously meticulous detail. But his actions are sometimes mechanical and his movements occasionally come off as an actor with a bad case of the nerves.
That said, if the audience were to have any doubts about Moore’s performance ability, they would be immediately dispelled within the first three minutes of the second work, Kushner’s “Terminating, or Lass Mein Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or Ambivalence.”
Moore portrays Hendryck, a pudgy homosexual psych patient attempting to convince his lesbian psychiatrist to have sex with him. From the outset, he responds to her psycho-babble analysis of him proclaiming that “ALL LOVE IS TRANSFERENCE. BREAST, MOM, ETC.” The rest of the text is similar in its abrupt philosophy.
Kushner’s work is so rich and fast in its anxiety, its urging tone and its pace that the audience can’t help but delight in keeping up with it. Hendryck is at once tangential and calm, raging and furious, even when he stops his wild monologuing to bargain with his psychologist, Esther (Whitney Estrin DRA ’10).
“Sleep with me at least,” Hendryck pleads.
“Hendryck, you’re gay,” Esther replies.
“Oh. YEAH, well… so what. GAY… what? …THAT… ugh. You’re a dyke I’m gay…” Hendryck follows.
Kushner’s “Terminating” challenges the audience to reevaluate its own sexual dogma in light of Hendryck’s constantly changing preferences. While he is talking to his psychiatrist, his current boyfriend — named Billygoat and portrayed by sound designer Michael Skinner DRA ’11 – also contributes occasionally from far stage right. As if to rebuke him for pursuing his psychiatrist, Billygoat attempts to persuade Hendryck that, in making love, his shit is beautiful.
“All sex has fragrance and is sometime malodorous. Love, like adder of rose, overwhelms in its fierce volatility. Shit transforms,” Billygoat explains to Hendryck, despite his insistence that poop is inherently revolting.
If the text gets a little preachy in its sex-bending angle, this is the spot. In the context of the show, however, it totally works.
The psychiatrist’s girlfriend (Kit McKay DRA ’12) gently chides the audience, explaining that, “Our inability to love each other is humankind’s greatest tragedy.” Even if the audience disagreed with this assertion when they walked into the theater, by the time the curtain falls they most certainly had been challenged to question everything they valued about love, sex and relating to those closest to them.
The two plays illustrate that lovers know each other best through their respective flaws. In Bogosian’s piece, Herman lies and cowers in order to win over Rengin from the biker dude. In Kushner’s, Hendryck pisses himself on the train and is loved in spite of it. Basically, the sweet ain’t as sweet without the sour.
“By Ill Be Cured” indeed.
“By Ill Be Cured” will be performed on Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m. at the Yale Cabaret, located at 217 Park St.