This layered parfait of existence is explored in Convergence-Continuum's thrilling production of Hot 'N' Throbbing by Paula Vogel. While the play comments on the juncture of pornography, parenting, and domestic violence, the larger issue of how we all integrate our inner demons within a challenging external world is also illuminated. Vogel's script starts strong, with a nervy, darkly humorous sensibility, but it gradually becomes entangled in its own stereotypes and ends on a gigantically depressing note. In between, however, the superb production values, gifted cast, and fresh, witty direction (by Clyde Simon) are gratifying.
Charlene appears to be a typical 38-year-old mom with two teenage kids, the sultry Leslie Ann ("Call me Layla!") and her dweebish, bespectacled brother, Calvin. Almost immediately, we realize that Charlene keeps her kids in Reeboks by writing porn scripts (sorry -- "female erotica") for a feminist film company. But there are more voices than those three in this house. As Charlene pounds away on her keyboard, her Voice-Over alter ego whispers script suggestions from what appears to be a dominatrix dungeon, while another Voice portrays various characters who pop up in the thoughts of others. These two entities are visible in separate windows behind the tiny living-room set, at times disappearing behind closed blinds and at other moments venturing out to the perimeter of the stage.
The audience quickly acclimates to the conceit, which provides a boatload of laughs in the first half of this 80-minute foray into suburban survival. Charlene is fantasizing for profit, while Leslie Ann dreams of being an exotic dancer and Calvin is busy whacking off with the help of his new catcher's mitt. However, things turn ominous when Charlene's pot-bellied, alcoholic ex-husband, Clyde (played very believably by John Regan), who is under a restraining order, forces his way into the home. This is where Vogel's story starts to disintegrate. Charlene shoots Clyde in the butt, then foolishly serves him a drink, then agrees to a quick romp with him on the Hide-A-Bed. None of Charlene's decisions make much sense, even when she observes, "A woman has needs." Soon, the illogical events spin downward into a tragic ending that feels divorced from the spirited beginning of the show.
The excellent cast is led by Lucy Bredeson-Smith as Charlene, who does what she can to string this woman's strange actions into a rational pattern of behavior. Jovanna Batkovic is bratty and sensuous as Leslie Ann (and does quite a nice turn on the brass pole), while Geoffrey Hoffman's Calvin is an ideal housebound twit. As the Voice-Over, Sheila O'Toole inserts her perfectly timed asides with salacious verve, and Cliff Bailey as the Voice is quite adept at his several roles, particularly a film-noir-style detective.
But the real highlight of this production is the way director Simon merges many elements into one smooth and engrossing whole. In addition to the extra voices, silent clips from various movies such as Moby Dick and Lolita are shown on a center monitor, which is also used to present real-time video images of the actors as well as prerecorded video segments. Thus, multiple layers of reality are conveyed as the characters tumble in and out of their own little worlds. The sense of disconnect is further enhanced by the use of various cinematic techniques -- cuts, jump cuts, and repeated takes -- that show how different any occurrence could be if only a few more words were said, or if the same words were said in another way. All in all, it's a fascinating experience, made all the more intriguing by the feeling -- created by the oh-so-cozy seating in the tiny Liminis space -- that one is sitting on a cliff.
There are important points to be made about pornography and its impact on the lives of women and families, but playwright Vogel does not succeed in adding much to that discussion. Even so, it is fortunate that the restlessly inventive minds at Convergence-Continuum selected this work, for it's an evening that will stay in your memory. And that could only improve the reality you create for yourself each day.
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