Gray Pony’s Wild Ride [Hippie Squared]

We did Oscar Wilde’s Salome in our underwear in the summer of 1991 and got “Pick of the Week” in the LA Weekly for it, a big deal then. We had a hit play on our hands. We were the Gray Pony Chorus. It was a wild ride.

That was the peak of our renown. Since then, we’ve vanished from the historical record. Our most illustrious alumni have dropped us from their resumes. Google us and you won’t find a single reference– other than this one, after today. (Mark Ruffalo co-directed a show we produced, but you wouldn’t know it from IMDB.)

One who does remember us is Robert Prior, impresario of the acclaimed Fabulous Monsters theater troupe. I say this not to brag, but in wonder: he’s often told me our Salome was one of his favorite nights ever spent in the theater. If I didn’t already love him, I would love him for that alone.

So when Robert directed a new production of Salome this summer, exactly twenty years after ours, I rounded up a reunion of our cast and crew to go see it. It seemed to mean a lot to Robert and his cast that we came. And that meant a lot to me. I have enormous affection for those old performing days.

Before we did theater in our underwear, we were a fully-clothed poetry performance group. We scored poetry for multiple voices, and backed ourselves on wind and rhythm instruments, on stages and in coffeehouses– places like Onyx Sequel in Los Feliz (on the site of the present Cafe Figaro); Jabberjaw on Pico; and Highland Grounds in Hollywood, 1989 and 1990.

Gray Pony’s Godfather, C. Natale Peditto, founded the group for his Master’s studying oral traditions at Cal State Northridge. The first show was his thesis, The Poet Alive: poetry of San Francisco Beat Bob Kaufman, who improvised verse in the streets, rarely wrote it down, and kept a vow of silence after JFK’s assassination for eleven years.

“Gray” for ancient and “Pony” for new, reflecting Peditto’s influences: the ancient Greeks and the American Beats, two self-contained literary universes and cultural bookends. The Greeks tamed their oral tradition by capturing it in writing. The Beats freed poetry from dusty academia and returned it to the dynamic human voice.

Original Salome program including cast and creative staff (Click to enlarge)

Salome was our second full-scale theatrical production. The tale of our first, Festival Dionysus, our anarchic take on the myth and festival to the god of wine and theater, deserves its own telling, but I won’t do that here, now. Because you may still be wondering: Why underwear?

They made for cheap costumes, Blaine Steele, our Salome director, told me at our recent reunion. I think it also helped compensate for the fact that his actors were mostly rank amateurs, unschooled and unseasoned. Put us all in underwear and who cares. You can’t tell the emperor he’s got no clothes if he comes right out and says, “Look at me! I’m in my underwear!” And underwear meant spectacle, it meant irreverence, and it added a little prurient interest, which never hurt box office.

But the way we deployed our underwear, it also revealed character. Salome fleshes out the Biblical tale of the beheading of John the Baptist. King Herod has imprisoned the prophet, called Jokanaan in Wilde’s play, for denouncing Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. But Herod fears Jokanaan as a prophet. Meanwhile, Herod lusts after Salome, Herodias’s daughter and thus his stepdaughter. Salome in turn lusts after Jokanaan, who rejects her. Herod begs Salome to dance for him. She agrees, if he’ll grant her any request. He accepts. After her Dance of the Seven Veils, she demands Jokanaan’s head on a silver platter. She kisses and coos to it. Herod, horrified, has her beheaded too. The end.

Kimberley Edwards, our King Herod, wore boxer shorts, garter socks, and a wife-beater tank top. Lisa Papineau, our Jokanaan, wore black fishnet stockings and black bra, and sported a megaphone. Salome, the spoiled and petulant princess played by Conchita Rivera, wore a silk robe and teddy. Imperious Queen Herodias (Priscilla Huddleston) wore a more dignified black lacy nightgown. So the underwear strategy also dealt with the fact that I was the only male in the cast.

The four-member chorus, playing the nameless functionaries of Herod’s court, soldiers and servants and such, wore white one-piece long underwear, with sleeping caps to match. Thus interchangeable, we each played all four minor characters, by means of the “cut-outs”–two-dimensional headless wooden figures, painted in surreal bright colors with the sexual characteristics of both genders, with handles in the back, so we passed them back and forth between us. Each came with its own vocal style: the captain of the guard who moons over Salome was melodramatically romantic. Another was perpetually angry; the soldier robotic; and the fourth goofy. It didn’t matter which chorus member embodied the character, they took on that figure and that voice.

The soldier in love with Salome came with a large, retractable wooden erection, that asserted itself from under his wooden skirt when Salome sweet-talked him into letting her see Jokanaan.

All sound effects were performed vocally by the chorus: the beating of far-off wings that only Herod hears. A choral, Bela Lugosi chant of “blooood” each of the many times the word is spoken by a main character. The drumming behind Salome’s dance. A hideous chant of “chop chop chop chop” as she madly kisses Jokanaan’s severed head (which kisses her back) and her own death approaches.

Amateurs we were, but give us points for enthusiasm. Man, we had fun. We were big, loud and unabashed. We chewed some scenery and spit it out, bloody, on the stage. Where we ran short on technique we ran long and deep on pure zest. After the Weekly rave, we extended our run another month and sold out every night.

Robert Prior actually came to see us twice. I always chalked much of his praise up to pure graciousness. But some weeks after Gray Pony went to see Robert’s Salome this summer, some of our cast and theirs got together to watch ours on a DVD Peditto had made from a twenty-year old primitive VHS recording. And Tim Ottman, the new King Herod, told me that Robert was actually influenced by our production. It apparently opened him to new possibilities for a looser theater. He mentioned our two-dimensional props, for example. At one point our Herod holds a huge, flat wooden apple on one thigh and a similarly oversized painted wooden wine goblet on the other.

Robert’s a genius and a learned practitioner of theater stagecraft, so I don’t make too much of all that. His version of Salome was very much his own, just like his cross-gender Importance of Being Earnest; his Project Alice, wherein Lewis Carroll in an opium dream becomes Alice and hallucinates Wonderland; his techno-dance Ramayana K24 and all the rest.

I’m basically a skeptical idealist. I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I believe that to the extent we live on its in the ways that we lodge ourselves in the memories and imaginations of those whose lives we intersect. So Gray Pony has mostly vanished from the memory of theater, even LA theater, by the evidence. But to know that we live in a few live human memories: Robert’s; and our own, newly revived and riding strong; and now the cast of the Fabulous Monsters/Zombie Joe’s Salome (“Hi Lita, Hi Joanna, Hi Jared!“), is something.

One hot night that summer of 1991 a group of orthodox Jewish boys came to see our show, expecting no doubt something safely biblical. Boy were they surprised–their wide eyes seemed to glimmer with secret delight. All those women in underwear, so close you could almost touch them! I bet they still remember us. And that’s a little something too.

[A fond reminscent hello to the rest of Salome's Gray Pony Chorus: Barbara Romain, Shelley Sachs and Jen Carruthers. As well as Costume Designer Donna Barrier (underwear!); Assistant Director Patty Malkin; Graphic Designer Terry Dovidio; and Chris Winslow, designer and painter of the cut-outs and props. And of course my dear wife Elise Rodriguez, veteran of Gray Pony’s last show, Craving Visions, who was not with me in 1991, but if she was, would’ve been right there in the thick of it. ]

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featured image credit: Salome program, front cover, designed by Terry Dovidio