“It’s hard to nail both entertaining and profound,” I wrote in a preview of the Box Wine Theatre production of Dalí’s Liquid Ladies, “and no local playwright does it better than Savannah Reich.” It’s true: for all its accessibility, Reich’s script starts upshifting soon after the curtain rises and by the time the curtain (or virtual curtain) falls, the play’s firing afterburners. What starts as an amusing reenactment of a historic oddity—Salvador Dalí’s surrealist pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York—becomes a probing meditation on the nature of desire.
It’s a meaty script, and in its original 2009 inception, Dalí’s Liquid Ladies benefited from a strong cast that included Reich herself, under the direction of Samantha Johns: the production was infused with Reich’s smart, subversive spirit and was staged at Bedlam Theatre, a surrealist funhouse in and of itself. It was a rare theatrical experience, and this new production, even with an expanded script, doesn’t track the script’s themes as legibly or movingly. Still, they don’t make ’em like this very often, and if you care about original theater, you’d be a fool to miss this new production.
The eponymous ladies are three working girls who see a chance to make a few bucks by posing semi-nude for the eccentric artist’s pavilion. The play takes place over the course of a long dark night during which Dalí (Kyler Chase) forces his “mermaids” to stay in the pavilion to perfect their performances before the public are allowed in. Joining the four is a young wayward Nazi (Cody Stewart) who mistakes Dalí’s pavilion for the German pavilion and finds himself seduced by Dalí’s invitation to indulge his id.
It’s a genuinely sexy show, with Dalí inviting his performers—and by extension, the audience—to succumb to their desires without concern for social norms. Reich paints the absurdity of Surrealism as a natural outgrowth of a mandate to do whatever you want to do, all the time. Sometimes you have an urge to throw bacon strips at a half-naked girl, and if you’re Dalí, you can and will do it. What does it mean? Who knows? Who cares?
The Box Wine production, under the direction of Adam Sharp, is enjoyable but a little stagey in its violation of norms. The liquid ladies (Bethany Simmons, Sarah Frazier, Andi Cheney) start the show on high rev, and their eventual transgressions seem as inspired by boredom as by temptation. Even the fairly copious nudity doesn’t seem particularly vulnerable—whereas in the 2009 production the audience watched uncomfortably as realization seemed to dawn on Kait Sergenian that she’d just dropped her top in front of a roomful of strangers, her 2012 counterpart turns dramatically around and recoils in mock horror. We see it, but we don’t feel it.
Chase creditably keeps a straight face as Dalí, and infuses real passion into the linchpin monologue where Dalí turns the narrative inside-out and reveals (this is a spoiler, but only a conceptual one) that being entirely at the mercy of one’s impulses isn’t liberating—it’s a trap he can’t escape. That’s the central truth at the core of this ingenious script: that eccentricities can be as mysterious to the eccentric as they are to the onlooker. We all have our lobster phones, the things we want or love that make no sense. What does it mean? Dalí hates that question, because he has no answer. Do you? Can you explain the shadowy impulses that you manage, presumably more effectively than does Dalí, to keep in check?
Despite its distracting hamminess (exacerbated by the overuse of anachronistic dance music), this is a bold and important production. Reich’s expansion of the script includes the incorporation of a scene that’s handled quietly and deftly. One of the women steps forward nude, skirting a blue spotlight that represents a pool. Finally she has Dalí’s attention (perhaps only in her own dream), and she confesses to him her most fundamental desire: to be seen, simply to be deliberately looked at and truly seen. She doesn’t ask to be seen for who she is, because she doesn’t even know. She just want Dalí—and you—to look. You should.
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