Songs of Bilitis: Theater Review

Songs of Bilitis Theater Review - H 2013
Courtesy of Rogue Artists Ensemble

Songs of Bilitis Theater Review - H 2013

Exotic exploration of famed erotica hoax, realized as a fever dream with wit. 

Christopher Rivas and Aryiel Hartman star in an erotic psychological thriller at Los Angeles' Bootleg Theatre.

Pierre (Christopher Rivas), a dissipated libertine youth cohabiting in sketchy Algerian digs with local courtesan Meriem (Estela Garcia) while imbibing heavily and smoking what must be potent hashish, immerses himself into a creative frenzy, hallucinating the sensual adventures of ancient Greek girl Bilitis (Aryiel Hartman), a polymorphously perverse innocent who finds gratification in whatever she encounters. On a roll, Pierre interacts with his creation to the neglect of his own friends, family and sex life, unwilling to distract himself from his obsessive commitment to elaborate analysis of sensual pleasure, literally enveloped by his own words.  

Pierre Louys’ 1894 eponymous literary work of 148 prose poems was presented as a rediscovered ancient classical manuscript of an anonymous Sapphic bard, with Pierre as the humble translator, and accepted as part of the authentic classical canon for over a decade. (Many who never caught the correction continued to believe so, including myself until first seeing this production in workshop.) His friend Claude Debussy set some of the text in one of his finest compositions.

As an enduringly sensitive portrayal of womanly love, the work was further enshrined by the creation of the historically significant “Daughters of Bilitis” in 1955, perhaps the first lesbian civil rights organization in the U.S. Louys also provided the source material for Josef von Sternberg’s last Marlene Dietrich picture, The Devil Is a Woman, and Luis Bunuel’s final project, That Obscure Object of Desire.

Rogue Artists Ensemble (D Is for Dog, The Gogol Project), under the distinctive hand of director Sean T. Cawelti, applies its signature mixed-media stylings of shadow play, puppets, masks and ritualized movement to their best effect yet. The perfumed flamboyance manages to be simultaneously solemn and goofy, grave yet playful. Their lens may be contemporary, but within that perspective they immerse themselves deeply into fin de siecle bohemian sensibility, conveying a dripping wetness of sweat, smoke and other indiscreet secretions.

Though the temptation to overstress the element of literary fraud is thankfully eschewed, one might overall have preferred perhaps less lapidary care to the constituent elements at the expense of unbridled excess, but Songs of Bilitis succeeds as a graceful invitation into the world of imaginative creation and the glories of the senses. 

Venue: Bootleg Theatre (runs through March 30)
Cast: Christopher Rivas, Aryiel Hartman, Estela Garcia, Heidi Hilliker, Angela Brockunier, Christina Aimerito, Stephen Elrod, Steve Madar, Zach Kanner
Director: Sean T. Cawelti
Playwright: Katie Polebaum with Rogue Artists Ensemble, adapted from the novel by Pierre Louys, originally commissioned by the Getty Villa Theater Lab
Set designer: Sarah Krainin
Lighting designer: Haylee Freeman
Sound designer: John Nobori
Music: Ego Plum
Choreographer: Nate Hodges
Video designer: Matthew G. Hill
Puppet designer: Cristina Bercovitz
Mask designer: Keith Mitchell