Psyched Out

By Downey, Roger | American Theatre, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Psyched Out


Downey, Roger, American Theatre


Seattle's Alice B. calls itself "a gay and lesbian theatre for all people." Nothing the group has produced in its nine-year history better exemplifies what that phrase might mean than Sub Rosa.

Sub Rosa started out with writer-director Nikki Appino's desire to explore the material and atmosphere of German cabaret between the World Wars, and the show that closed Alice B.'s 1992-93 season in June still exhibited faint suggestions of that notion: The shabby interior of the Pioneer Square Theater was got up like a grotty basement after-hours club, and there was enough eye-shadow and leather on the boys and girls strolling among the cafe tables to satisfy a Bob Fosse, if not a Reza Abdoh.

But from the first slashing notes of Jim Ragland's score and the first blizzard of projected images and texts across Dan Corson's constructivist set, Sub Rosa all but abandoned the much-trodden ground of '20s Weimar for a far deeper dig: down to the very roots of Western secular mysticism.

The tale of the love of Cupid and Psyche--the narrative to which Sub Rosa anchored its excavation--first turns up embedded in the florid second-century Latin of Apuleius' Golden Ass. Anthropologists say that the story of the three princess sisters, a mysterious nocturnal bridegroom and terrible trials leading to a happy ending is the oldest example of pure folktale in the Indo-European tradition. By Apuleius' time, the fable had accumulated five centuries worth of philosophical baggage, with the final wedding of Cupid (Eros) and Psyche (Soul) representing the mystical union of spirit and flesh as envisioned by the later followers of Plato.

Neo-Platonism pervades the Jewish Cabbala, the musings of medieval Muslim clerics, the output of Renaissance thinkers like Pico della Mirandola and Renaissance painters like Botticelli (his Primavera is neo-Platonist allegory throughout). But when Latin ceased to be the universal language of the West, the West lost access to its native non-Christian mystical tradition. In Sub Rosa, Nikki Appino and co-writer-director Kristen Newbom put us back directly in touch with these lost mythic roots, and the sizzle of understanding is immediate and electric.

Amphetamine vaudeville

At first it seems there must be some point to the role of Venus (Cupid's mom) being played in slenderly sinuous beaded-scarlet drag by Christopher Johnson, while spunky, randy Cupid is rendered by a boyish but unmistakably feminine Alyce LaTourelle. Only when the show's over does one's spinning brain have leisure to realize that the cross-gender casting doesn't matter--or rather that it matters only because it doesn't matter. …

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