All That California Female Energy (Another Turn on the Pony) [Hippie Squared]

It was our first rehearsal for Salome, late spring 1991. I had managed to drag Mutahar Williams along. “Mutahah,” as it was pronounced, was his Subud name, but he was very English, his voice deep and resonant, like seasoned wood: an exquisitely-tuned instrument for poetry.

We’d hit the coffeehouse poetry circuit trolling for players for Festival Dionysus, our anarchic take on the ancient Greek festival of wine and theater. I found Mutahar at Lizards on Santa Monica, or the Espresso Bar in the alley off S. Raymond in Pasadena. He was a professor at Occidental College and a considerable poet. The M in MTV still stood for music then, they actually showed videos still. Mutahar felt the time was ripe for poetry videos, so he made his own. Nature poetry, shot outdoors. I think I still have the VHS cassette somewhere.

But I recruited him for the Ancients Chorus in Dionysus. He was one of those who remained skeptical of the show all the way through our run. Not as skeptical as the only professional actress in our patchwork company of poets, musicians, painters and general gung-ho creative types, who kept moaning, “This is going to ruin my career,” throughout every rehearsal. She never invited anyone she knew to the show. And she’d lose herself in back whenever the whole Gray Pony Chorus took the stage.

Cast left to right: Shelley Sachs & Barbara Romain (chorus), Conchita Rivera (Salome), Jeff Rogers & Jen Carruthers (chorus); background: Priscilla Huddleston (Herodias) and Kimberley Edwards (Herod); missing: Lisa Papineau (Jokanaan)

Oscar Wilde’s Salome was our follow-up to Dionysus, and it would prove to be a fluke hit (as I wrote about last month, complete with cast and crew list, synopsis, etc.), but at that first rehearsal who could know? There were at least eight women there, and only three men: Mutahar, myself, and Blaine Steele, the director. (Peditto might have been there, too–our producer, and founder of the company–but I don’t remember him participating; he sat out Salome as a performer.) A lot of chaotic cross-talk in a roomful of us thrusting our ideas forward, climbing over each other to get  them heard, not just a storm but a brain-tornado. Mutahar fled into the night. I called him later to ask why. “Too much California female energy,” he intoned. Mutahar, old soul, I miss you. If you’re out there somewhere, please make contact.

Chorus and Salome

Left to right: Barbara Romain (chorus), Connie Rivera (Salome), the author (chorus)

Me, I fuckin’ loved all that California female energy. It was one of those lucky times in my life when I’ve been one of the only men in a group of women. A privilege. A female dynamic often prevailed. I remember one rehearsal where the talk turned to the pros and cons of shaving one’s pussy. “I love it smooth,” said one cast member. Then she made a face. “But it’s so itchy when it starts to grow back.”

There were no dressing rooms at the Igloo Theater, so we changed into costume in the two restrooms backstage. Seven women and one man, two tiny bathrooms, the costume changing quickly spilled out into the hall outside the restrooms. I got to see all the women in their underwear. Got to have the little secret thrill of letting them see me in mine. Little speedo type briefs, at the time. I was skinny enough then to pull it off, and boxers were only starting to come back into fashion, so I was not too far out of the norm either. But the silly thing about that thrill was: we did the whole play in our underwear anyway! (More on the costumes here.)

“A must-see masterpiece of demystification,” went LA Weekly’s Pick-of-the-Week review. Couldn’t quote that last month. Only found my full Salome file after, wouldn’t you know it? Thus the new photographs this month, too. Our production featured four principals: Salome, Jokanaan (John the Baptist by a more exotic name), King Herod and Queen Herodias: all played by women. Plus a chorus of four, (three women and me), each of us playing all four minor parts by means of wooden cutouts that we passed between us (see the photos, new here this month)–”The show’s antic, post-apocalyptic chorus,” the Weekly’s Bill Raden called us.

That line was partly inspired by our set. We were the late-night show at the Igloo–now the Hudson–one of the first theaters on what has now become theater row on Santa Monica Blvd. As the late-night show, we had to drop our props into the regular show’s set: a post-apocalypse landscape.

LA Weekly Pick of the Week reviewBefore the Weekly review, audiences didn’t seem to know what to make of us. After it, we had a hit. We extended our run and sold out every night. It’s a true pleasure to go onstage every night to a packed house that’s with you. They feed you and feed off of you, and everyone goes home satisfied.

The LA Times, on the other hand, never quite came along: “Blaine Steele…directs his strange company in his psychedelic version with great abandon,” wrote T.H. McCulloh, in his 5/24/91 review.  “After an interesting opening, maybe he abandoned too much.” Strange company, eh? Well yes, that was a pretty fair assessment.

Now Dramalogue got more into the spirit. Lucia Dewey said of the chorus, “Completely, inanely zany, the four perform each campy trick with such gusto you’ve got to love it.” She singled out each of the principals for praise, and finished: “And yes, marvelous!”

Dramalogue ReviewWhen the cast and crew of our twenty-years gone production reunited this summer to see the new production of Salome directed by Robert Prior (who had seen ours years ago–bringing us all full circle, in a way), the two directors discussed their respective approaches. “I always saw it as essentially unplayable,” Blaine said. Robert said he always felt there were only two ways to play it: as camp, or with complete sincerity. His production took the latter tack, and was excellent. More polished than ours, with a cast of trained and practiced theater actors, each of whom nailed it. Tim Ottman as Herod and Lita Peneherrera were the charismatic north and south poles of that production, both willful and selfish, pulling against each other to create a relentless tension that only partially let up when Salome danced, finally released at the moment that she screams at the executioner’s sword swinging back to lop off her head and the house goes dark.

Though two out of the three reviews of our production called it “camp,” that never felt right to me. We were going for something bigger and harder than camp. When Groucho Marx dropped acid for the first time, he had a revelation: “Reverence and irreverence are the same thing!” he told Paul Krassner. Without anyone in Gray Pony ever quite saying it, I think we were going after a kind of sacred irreverence.

Gray Pony always dealt in deconstruction. Textual sampling. Derrida was in the air in those days, and Camille Paglia. We’d rip apart our texts and interpolate our own stuff. With Salome, because Blaine actually wanted to tell a coherent story, he scooped all that up and set it up front, as a kind of mood-setting overture. Our “interesting opening,” as the Times called it.

One piece of the overture (Barbara Romain’s doing, if I recall correctly) had the chorus chanting four lines, each a sacred snippet from a major religious tradition: Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. Then we chanted obscene parodies of each. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” became “Hell Mary, sit on my face!” Our theater was somehow sacred and profane ritual both. And maybe all ritual is sacred, even if also profane.

We weren’t making fun of Wilde, or theater. (Religion, maybe; but if religion is going to take itself so damn seriously all the time, what the hell else does it expect?) We were having fun, wherever and however we could, bringing all our energy and invention, all the force of our creative muscles to bear.

Sacred Irreverence. That was the unspoken, Gray Pony creed. If you ask me.

Salome Flyer

Salome flyer by Terry Dovidio

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