Playwright Lisa D’Amour remembers just when the obsession started. The designer Olivia Wildz handed her a photo of two women wearing wild headdresses sprouting enormous peacock feathers. “What really struck me was their gaze,” D’Amour recalls. “They were looking down their noses straight at the camera. I felt they were daring me to come and find them.”
D’Amour took the dare. Along with Wildz and a growing ensemble of women who came to share the fixation, she began researching the on- and offstage lives of Flora and Piroska Gellert, immigrants from a Hungarian shtetl who toured the world with their burlesque-tinged, acrobatic dance shows from the 1920s to ’50s, and ended up as recluses, colorfully decorating every square inch of their dilapidated house in New Orleans, D’Amour’s hometown.
The result, Nita and Zita (the Gellerts’ stage names), is an introspective and highly sequined musical cabaret exploring the fuzzy lines between art and life. Having won an Obie in 2003 after a brief run in New York, Nita and Zita returns to HERE on January 27.
“The piece has an intimate spectacular surface and a dark undercurrent,” says Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, where D’Amour is a resident playwright. “It’s by turns beautiful, mock sentimental, peppy and vivacious, sad. And it’s just plain fun.”
Accompanied by pianist Tom McDermott, Kathy Randels and Katie Pearl play both themselves and the sisters, commenting on their creative lives and demonstrating some of Nita and Zita’s ingenious choreography.
D’Amour and her co-creators built the piece, she says, out of “a collage of evidence and hearsay.” She found little trace of the Gellerts in performance archives and turned to “the old-school New Orleans route: knocking on doors and talking to neighbors.” Few had much to offer about the women, who came out of the house—in their elaborate, hand-sewn costumes—only to buy groceries or to patch their roof. D’Amour and company even consulted a local psychic, who conferred with one of the Gellerts’ costumes and a chunk of their ceiling to determine that one sister had conceived a child. (Neither had children. Nita died in 1985, Zita in 1991.)
“Their mystique,” says D’Amour, “started to become as important as their actual story.”
Subdued New York outcry for a censored British artist
When Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding in 1989, writers in the United States rushed to his defense, flooding him with letters of solidarity, publishing op-eds, and demonstrating in the streets. So far, apart from strong statements in the British press by Rushdie himself, who currently resides in New York, there’s been little public outcry here in support of the playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, who went underground in England in December after receiving death threats in response to her play Behzti (Dishonor). The play’s run in Birmingham was canceled last month in the face of violent protests by members of Britain’s Sikh community, who objected to scenes of rape, murder, and corruption set in a Sikh temple.
The New York theater community has not yet issued any formal statements of support, though local artists have expressed their concern. The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective listserv, for example, was burning up for about two weeks with discussion of Bhatti’s plight, according to member Priyanka Mathew, who will be producing a festival of plays by South Asian diaspora writers in June. “We agreed Gurpreet’s play is not a comment on Sikhism itself,” she says, drawing a comparison to American dramas that address the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, such as John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Given that America’s South Asian community is smaller and newer than England’s, Mathew says, there’s more openness here. No one is complaining, for instance, about Paul Knox’s Gehri Dosti, five short plays with gay South Asian themes currently being presented by Circle East. “The community has been very supportive,” says Knox. Adds Mathew, “Gurpreet’s play might get a tough reaction. But I’m sure there are people who would like to bring her work to New York.”
Researching the Bard: All the world’s a website
To be or not to be, I, there’s the point.” Yes, even Shakespeare had to write a few drafts to get things right. Thanks to the British Library, everyone can now see from the comfort of their own computer screen what the Bard’s eraser missed. The library recently put online digitized copies of 93 quarto editions of 21 of the plays. Scholars regard these as rehearsal scripts, texts put together on the basis of actors’ recollections or working drafts. Will the easy availability of this material (bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/homepage.html) have any impact on productions?
“Absolutely,” says Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, which is presenting Coriolanus beginning February 12. “The differences between what’s in the quartos and what’s been handed down is often profound, and you used to have to go to special libraries with special permission and wear rubber gloves to see them.” Director Karin Coonrod, however, need not sweat over researching such textual comparisons for her production: No quarto edition of Coriolanus exists.