A little sex in our theatre

I like a little sex in my theatre.

During our Sunday Scholars Series for TimeLine’s production of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West by Naomi Iizuka, Artistic Director PJ Powers joked that “sex never gets old.” Indeed.

One of the most interesting moments in that discussion came when one of our patrons asked why, when the West forced Japan to open its borders, there came this conception that the Japanese were more sexual. Our panelist, Dr. James Huffman, noted that while the Christian world judges sexuality in terms of morality, pre-Christian Japanese culture did not. He posited that the Japanese view sex and sexuality in terms of private vs. public behaviors rather than good vs. bad. In this context, sexuality, while assuredly private, is not measured on the same moral scale. It was the advent of Western Christian ideals that imposed taboos on certain sexual behaviors (homosexuality, for example) in Japan.

Tiffany Villarin and Kroydell Galima in TimeLine's "Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West."
Tiffany Villarin and Kroydell Galima in TimeLine’s “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West.”

This cultural distinction captivated me. It challenged me to look at this play, which we at TimeLine have jokingly referred to as our “sexy play,” in an entirely different light.

The clash of (mis)perceptions about sexuality plays out across the lines of history. The 19th Century character Isabel Hewlett mistakenly assumes that the photographer Farsari’s Japanese servant girl is there to “please him in ways no proper woman would.” It’s an assumption we are recalled to later in the play when the modern-day character Hiro scowls, “Maybe she just got fed up with some white guy with an Asian fixation—because I’ll tell you something—that shit gets old.”

Sexual stereotype, exoticism and desire seep from the text of this play. At the first rehearsal the room pulsed with it; all of us collectively conjuring images of naked woman and men, illicit affairs and stolen trysts; all of us wondering, “how the hell is this going to play out on stage?

Chris Jones wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago about why sex rarely works on stage. WBEZ hosted a panel discussion about the discomfort surrounding sex and nudity on stage. Sex and sexuality have always been at the epicenter of the theatre, whether it is their censure or presentation. If you don’t believe me, just ask my theatre friends with grandparents who still maintain that “all actors are prostitutes.” A few hundred years ago they might have been right.

Mr. Jones is absolutely right that sex on the stage is completely different from sex on camera. The presence of an audience, and the collective awareness of that audience, changes everything. There is no mystery in the sex one sees on stage, or at least, no romance. But sex is not always mysterious or romantic.

One audience member noted that none of the sex in this show felt very erotic. I agree with her. The sex in this play is not erotic, nor do I think it is meant to be. There are allusions to eroticism (though more often exoticism) and pleasure—but in telling only. The sex and nudity that is seen on stage in this production is, cleverly, of a different kind. It is a sexuality that is jarring, illicit, stolen. The viewer feels unsettled because these are acts that we are not meant to see. Stolen, still frames of someone’s private life. Once you capture the image, it becomes corrupted.

This alarmed me the first time I saw the play. However, the more I think about it, the more I understand that the erotic really does live more freely in private. Sexual actions performed on stage are immediately corrupted either by another character’s gaze or, more intriguing still, by us, the audience. We fill out the story of first the character, then the actor, and then their body, as we watch them move across the stage wondering, “What are they doing, with all of us watching?” We create a narrative as rife with assumptions, stereotype and sexual stigma as any of our characters from 19th Century Yokohama.

I think the truth is that we are ill at ease with being asked to look at sex or nudity in a realm that is neither romanticized nor obscene. I never thought about it this way until seeing Concerning Strange Devices and being forced to consider why the sexuality I was seeing felt so far from what I had imagined it would (even should) be. When I watch the scenes of nudity or sex I feel not desire, but a certain discomfort. Because these moments are not mine, they are private.

In a way, the theatre itself is a way of turning the private public. We expect to enter Gertrude’s bedchamber with Hamlet, to watch Blanche collapse into her own neurosis. And yet, so often we expect to do so at a safe distance without the slightest discomfort. How presumptuous of us, I think now. Imperialistic even.

I agree that sex may feel uncomfortable, even jarring, when it is played on stage. But as to whether or not it “works,” I supposed that would depend on what it is trying to do.

To a western audience, where the private is so constantly made public, and sexuality instantly charged as good or bad, what does it mean when these lines are blurred?

For me the realization clicked that Iizuka and director Lisa Portes might not be using sex to arouse or seduce their audience, but something altogether more exciting—provoking them with it.  To a western audience, where the private is so constantly made public, and sexuality instantly charged as good or bad, what does it mean when these lines are blurred? What happens when the sex you are seeing feels private, but the action itself unapologetic? When we become implicated in the sexual objectification of a body on stage, the light is turned sharply inward to our own sexual stereotypes, shames and desires. And I commend Iizuka and Portes for their willingness to cast that light on their audiences.

Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West closes on Sunday, April 14, 2013.

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