Rites of Privacy
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 1, 2007
Growing up there was a boy in my building, Billy Werner. He lived on the sixth floor and we would play together after school. Dress up. Our private little ritual. We'd close the bedroom door and we'd dress up. Pirates, Cowboys, Indians, Spacemen...Mermaids.
That's the beginning of David Rhodes's blisteringly intimate solo show, Rites of Privacy. It announces, with startling clarity, the main themes of the piece. One is secrecy—the effects, for better or worse, of wrapping oneself up inside a version of the truth that's hidden from everyone else. During the show, Rhodes portrays five different characters—an aging Southern widow named Clarinda, an improbable New Hampshire Jew named Seamus Benavram, a Rabbi whose rich German father escaped from the Nazis before the Holocaust, a married woman with kids named Susan who has had an affair with a doctor, and a young Belgian hustler who gets wrapped up in the New York gay/club scene. Each of them, we discover, harbors a pretty dangerous secret—we're talking matters of life and death, here, literally. And each of them suffers from, and is diminished by, the very act of hiding.
All five, and Rhodes himself, are Jewish as well—a people who are used to hiding (sometimes in plain sight, by assimilating), and Rhodes explores this thread, explicitly and subtly, throughout Rites of Privacy.
Yet, there's another important theme here: the notion of dressing up. Of course, this can be a manifestation of the same kind of secrecy/hiding that we've been exploring so far; but, it's also meant to be taken literally: this show is very much a celebration of submerging one's identity into another, again for better of worse. Rhodes and his director, Charles Loffredo, show us the actor's transformations into each of his characters and back again very forthrightly; the show is as much about these transitions as anything else. I've never felt the actor's urge to play chameleon so keenly...and I felt stirrings of the same impulses in myself, as a child playing make-believe games with my sister years ago.
I think it's this ineffable and irresistible notion that makes Rites of Privacy such a magnetic and exciting work of theatre. Rhodes enters in a simple bathrobe and puts on Clarinda's stylish pants suit, too-big necklace, rings, and earrings, and her carefully coiffed wig, right before our eyes. He applies the rouge and makeup at a modest dressing table stage right. And then, voila: he's inhabiting Clarinda. When he's done, the wig comes off first (always; or, for the men, the hat), and then he's instantly David again.
Of course, the characters he creates here (he's the author as well as the performer and, not at all incidentally, the designer of the vivid, well-built costumes that define each of his alter egos) are detailed and fascinating and each, in their odd way, likable. The sixth character in the show is David himself, revealed to us slowly in anecdotes during the transitions, and then in a surprising and moving concluding monologue. Here he is himself, in a t-shirt and jeans, seated without affectation on a chair centerstage, matter-of-factly ending his story. It's gutsy and enormously affecting.
Loffredo's work as director and co-producer (with Michael T. Cohen and Rhodes) is expert; my one quibble with the show might be that the music/movement segments that begin and end several of the sections are superfluous and can be dispensed with. But Rites of Privacy offers plenty of food for thought on its tantalizing main subjects of privacy, secrecy, rituals, and transformation; and it introduces us (inside and out) not only to a mesmerizing and talented actor but to a compelling collection of characters who have much to teach us about the powerful lure and danger of not telling.