Theater archives

A Little Chin Music


When The Beard played San Francisco in 1965, it was closed down after one performance; it played 10 nights in L.A., and the actors were arrested every night. The show was the subject—and the victor—of a string of obscenity cases. Now it’s legal. Still shocking? Nah—but with Lawrence Sacharow’s steamy direction, it is still hot, hot, hot.

As for the play’s literal meaning, it’s just as cryptic today as it must have been then. A program note by the director suggests the story is a Tantric Yoga?inspired myth about “the cosmic battle of the sexes in the eternal quest for union of the flesh and the spirit.” Or, as its male protagonist puts it: “I want you to sit on my lap and stroke my cock.”

The players are Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid, who seem to be the only folks kicking around in Eternity, a misty nothingness furnished with a couple of easy chairs. She’s nearly spilling out of her trademark vamp gown; he’s long, shaggy, and mean in tall boots. He pursues crudely. She retorts, teases, and taunts. The dialogue, repeated over and over and traded like musical theme and countertheme, is ritualistic, opaque. It concerns flesh and illusion, image and reality. “Before you can pry any secrets from me,” she challenges, “you have to find the real me. Which one will you pursue?” Sometimes he calls her a “bag of meat”; other times he lobs her own obscure questions back at her. “No one’s watching,” he tells her over and over. “We can do what we want.” Perhaps we’re meant to wonder what they become without a watching public.

If the words are perplexing, the action is crystalline. As the two strike poses, pace, and stalk each other, the scent of desire rises. Meeting his dare, she draws one silk stocking tantalizingly down, then a pair of lavender panties, which he rips to shreds. He shadows her, rubs into her, envelops her.

Sacharow unleashes the pair’s potential charge. Leo Marks, a lanky, dangerous-looking character with wild eyes, projects raw sexuality. He walks and talks like a man barely restraining the impulses transmitted by his throbbing hard-on. Eva Patton’s a foulmouthed tormentress turned on by the Kid’s crude demands. A matched set of powers.

So why do they each sport a white paper triangle on their chin—her “goatee” is bigger than his—and why is this contest titled The Beard? Perhaps he’s bearded the lioness in her den. Perhaps, equally necessary sides of the sexual union, they each display the symbol of maleness—or, by reference to her lower anatomy, a symbol of the female. Or maybe they each bear a bit of graffiti, a mischievous comment scrawled on a picture of the famous. That it’s still fun to guess is a happy comment on this Aquarian icon.

**Marguerite Duras’s Savannah Bay presents a very different pas de deux, but it’s also a seduction within a seduction. On stage are an aging actress, Madeleine, and her granddaughter, a young woman determined to coax from her wandering-witted grandma the story of the missing link between them, a 17-year-old mother and probable suicide.

Directed by Andrew Volkoff as a mood poem, Savannah Bay is an elegy, a lamentation. The two figures are nearly dwarfed by Beowulf Boritt’s expressionistic set—a French Colonial room with sweeping draperies, sloping dinner table, and mirror sunk into layers of windswept sand. As they enter, the granddaughter plays a melancholy French ballad on an ancient Victrola. “I know you,” the confused old woman pipes up brightly. “You’re the daughter of my child that died.”

They wander the neglected house arm in arm, Madeleine preening before the mirror in an old stage gown and trying on long-forgotten pearls. As the women share a formal tea, the granddaughter begins to tell of the girl—her mother, Savannah—who swam out to a rock in the bay, where she met a stranger and seduced him. Taking over the narrative, the old woman picks up the thread, recoils from it, then is gently urged forward to a conclusion she has never spoken out loud—that her daughter swam to her death just hours after giving birth to a baby girl.

Like Duras’s novel The Lover, this is the tale of a tempestuous affair between a teenage girl and an older man spun in lush, overripe prose. “Someone weeps with happiness because they’re going to die of love,” Madeleine rationalizes.

Duras has left rather undeveloped the motivations of the abandoned child whose mother may have felt superfluous to her great passion. Though this daughter is given some bittersweet sorrow by India Blake, she primarily functions as a device to spotlight the old woman. That rich role is performed hauntingly by Peg Small, who encompasses an intensely felt life: a fierce, fixated love, an inconsolable sorrow, a clenched-fist defiance of reality. Holding herself regally, alternately groping for and then repelling understanding, she flits disconnectedly from spasms of joyful memory, to sly asides, to silent weeping.

Around her, Volkoff has arrayed a host of poetic effects: light bathing the stage in turquoise or ruby, alternating rhythms of music, speech, and silence. Though occasionally slow, Savannah Bay mostly succeeds—on its own extravagant terms.