The Empress of Sex
nytheatre.com review by Claire Kiechel
June 4, 2012
Duncan Pflaster writes and Glory Kadigan directs in this delightful comedy, The Empress of Sex, part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. The play follows the Empress Salacia who, after being cheated on by her lover, Agis, sets up her own utopia on a deserted island where pleasure is paramount and love is prohibited. But the balance is soon upset after the Empress’ former lover arrives (disguised as a woman) determined to win her back. His sister Adriana (disguised as a man) and their servant, Coriolanus, accompany Agis in his adventure. All becomes more complicated when Adriana falls for the Empress’ advisor, Portieris (who finds himself falling for her cross-dressing brother), and Coriolanus falls for the court musician who must write a song about the virtues of no love.
The Empress of Sex is in many ways, Pflaster’s take on a Shakespearean comedy—Twelfth Night and As You Like It immediately come to mind. Catherine LeFrere’s melancholy Empress is a descendant of Olivia, but instead of channeling her grief into abstinence, she channels it into as much meaningless sex as possible. Portieris, her spiritual advisor, played beautifully by Walter Brandes, is an Orlando or Orsino, while Adriana (played with hilarious facial reactions by Erin Solér) is a Viola, playing the male confidante to a man with whom she is secretly in love. Pflaster expertly uses other Shakespearean conventions—a lost letter, a dumb show, and a bard—to great comedic effect.
Since it is billed as an “erotic” romantic comedy, be warned that there is a fair amount of nudity. Most everybody gets somewhat naked, and Izzy Field’s appropriately campy costumes make for easy access to both breasts and an impressive number of penises. The actors’ comfort in their bodies, however, allowed the audience to relax and laugh. It was refreshing to see so many un-self-conscious and committed performers in a strong ensemble piece. Director Glory Kadigan and choreographer Joe Barros do a superb job of making sure that the stage feels inhabited but never crowded even when 19 actors share the stage.
I especially enjoyed the scenes between the lithe and exuberant Coriolanus and his jolly musician paramour Mousiki. Matthew Menendez and Antonio Miniño should star in a sequel following their characters’ escapades around the Greece. In a group of strong performers, Kelly Zekas as the complicated maiden and Eric Percival as the repenting lover also stood out.
Toward the end of the piece, as the pair of siblings and their trusty servant prepare their own play within a play, Portieris defends their show as a satire:
Oh yes, my Empress: look, the boy plays a girl and the girl, our own Penelope, plays a boy! How jolly! Certainly none of this is meant to be taken seriously. ‘Tis but an entertaining silliness.
Yet, Pflaster clearly wants the audience to take him somewhat seriously, or least reflect on how his vision translates to contemporary terms of sexuality and love. I was surprised to find that beneath Pflaster’s raunchy words lies the heart of a moralist. For all the simulated sex acts on stage (cleverly obscured by Marissa Bergman’s sheer curtains, Christopher Weston’s smart lighting, and Field’s costumes), none of them comes off as very sexy. Pflaster argues that it is only love that makes sex satisfying, but as various characters repeat this sentiment over and over, it begins to feel didactic. The play dips its toes into emotional water, but because the characters’ pains are not fully explored, it never transcends its comedic trappings to touch us on a human scale. As an “entertaining silliness” however, it is an excellent way to spend an hour and 45 minutes. And, as an additional incentive, all performances of The Empress of Sex benefit Planned Parenthood.
You can also purchase the play at http://www.indietheaternow.com/Play/PlayDetail/471.