Jessica Goldberg takes another giant step forward with a witty, well-crafted and sharply observed study about the sexual and social subjugation of women. Goldberg has found a fine character to represent this conflict in Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), South African-born author who fought for female emancipation, free love and birth control.

Jessica Goldberg, who earned New York plaudits in 2001 for her play “Good Thing,” takes another giant step forward with “Sex Parasite,” a witty, well-crafted and sharply observed study about the sexual and social subjugation of women. Goldberg has found a fine character to represent this conflict in Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), South African-born author who fought for female emancipation, free love and birth control. A 19th century critic called Schreiner “the only woman of genius South Africa ever produced,” and under director Chay Yew’s electric direction, she retains relevance as role model without becoming a ponderous activist or plaster saint.

“A hundred horse whips couldn’t hold that tongue,” comments her friend, fellow fighter and sexologist Havelock Ellis (Liam Christopher O’Brien). Schreiner (Kirsten Potter) lives up to Ellis’ words, shocking 19th century British society by wearing a man’s three-piece brown suit and proclaiming, “Until women are equal, I will be a man.” The beauty of Potter’s portrayal is her facility for suggesting femininity no matter how masculine she strives to be.

Schreiner’s anti-romantic principles are tested when professor Karl Pearson (Erik Sorenson) enters her world. For all his efforts to look at the larger picture, Pearson is limited by misconceptions and prejudices of his time period. Tension mounts because Sorenson is a remarkable actor, with so much charm that we want the two to transcend their difficulties, even as confrontations pull them further apart.

Matters come to a head after they decide to interview a prostitute, Alice (Jennifer Rau), about her sexuality, and a later revelation discloses that Pearson felt it perfectly all right to take her home and have a tryst afterward. Even more damaging is the exposure of a document, “The Secret History of Mademoiselle X,” written by Ellis, exposing Schreiner’s numerous affairs and her courage to defy rigid convention.

Enhanced by Yevgenia Nayberg’s high-necked, corseted dresses and outstanding scenic backdrop consisting of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, Victorian hypocrisy is explored through a fascinating cast of characters. Schreiner’s friend and landlady Elizabeth Cobb (Shannon Holt) is hilarious as a parent who admits, “Since I’m the mother of six, I performed the sex act six times.”

Holt’s interpretation is admirable, tongue in cheek but capable of conveying all the needed subtleties. O’Brien’s Ellis is memorably campy, a comic figure who suddenly and touchingly reveals humiliating tendencies of his own. John Apicella, playing Schreiner’s rejected lover, scores in the complex part of a man who understands and sympathizes with her feelings.

The evening’s surprise is Rau as mousy, self-effacing Maria. The young girl starts colorless and gradually acquires dimension — along with a cleverly understated desire to win Professor Pearson from Schreiner. Her manipulations in the later scenes are superbly projected. Rau’s range is demonstrated by her ability to portray this silent schemer and then switch brilliantly to her other role as the prostitute.

Goldberg’s play reverberates with acerbic one-liners and is thoroughly entertaining as drawing room comedy, but it also states powerfully that sexual fantasies are unique to the individual and as such should not be judged as unacceptable or perverse.

None of her points are belabored, and the final clash between Pearson and Schreiner is a splendid example of dramatizing an issue rather than smothering it in speeches. Through Potter and Sorenson’s portrayals, we grasp a compelling truth: that even committed, dogmatic personalities have deep ambivalence beneath the stubborn certainties they express.

Sex Parasite

Taper, Too at Ivy Substation; 99 seats; $30 top

Production

A Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum presentation of a play in two acts by Jessica Goldberg. Directed by Chay Yew.

Creative

Sets and costume design, Yevgenia Nayberg; lighting, Jose Lopez; sound, John Zalewski; stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok. Opened and reviewed April 4, 2004; closes April 18. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Sir Bryan Donkin - John Apicella Elizabeth Cobb - Shannon Holt Havelock Henry Ellis - Liam Christopher O'Brien Olive Schreiner - Kirsten Potter Maria Sharpe/Alice - Jennifer Rau Professor Karl Pearson - Erik Sorenson
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