Two versions of the song "Like a Virgin" play on a loop as the audience enters the theatre for TigerMilk Collective's production of Candy Tastes Nice at the HERE Arts Center. A man sings one version, a woman sings the other; both versions lack the playful spunk of Madonna's original. They sound tinny, as though recorded in a bare bones studio and played through an old car stereo with the treble dial turned high. The thin and reedy voices make the words sound comical, exposing the absurdity of the pop-infused, candy-coated lyrics—"I was beat, incomplete / I'd been had, I was sad and blue / But you made me feel / Yeah, you ma-a-a-ade me feel / Shiny and new..."—and give the impression of a song sung enthusiastically but without meaning.
Just when the loop begins to seem repetitive, Miranda Huba, the writer and performer of this one-woman show, walks to the center of the stage, stops, turns toward the audience and, with a knowing smile accentuated with an arched eyebrow, stares until we quiet down, at which point she launches into her story.
The force of this launch coupled with the rigidity of her movements shocked me. It took a few minutes to make sense of her words. By the time I caught up, I realized she was into the meat of her tale and that the house lights had yet to dim. She spoke to us directly. We were participants in the telling.
Candy Tastes Nice tells the story of the narrator's quest, in an effort to pay off her student loans, to auction her virginity. Though never stated, the idea seems funny to her: nothing's being done with it anyway, so why not?
The process is grueling though. First she visits a doctor in a white van who certifies that her hymen is in tact. She then goes to a whorehouse where she meets a pimp who agrees to manage her during the auction. There she befriends three women—Candi, Bambi & Giselle—whose initial aversion to her idea—"Not all women are fortunate enough to choose losing their virginity" one of them states with disgust—turns to sycophantic enthusiasm once the proceedings get underway.
And what momentum! Her virginity becomes a marketing phenomenon when she appears on a talk show hosted by a former model. (Fierce!) Her manager encourages holding onto it to drive up the market price. She takes this advice. Months pass—years—as interest accumulates, contracts are signed, interviews are arranged, and intentions are picked apart with a ruthlessness indicative of the 24/7 media cycle.
But time takes its toll. Her body ages: wrinkles appear, her skin sags and becomes translucent. Her sexual dreams turn violent. None of this lowers demand but instills in her the desire to move along. To hold the auction. To get it over with.
When the auction comes, it becomes more ridiculous than the buildup. The bidding begins at $1 and increases exponentially. As the price rises, the stakes become higher. Priests bid. Businessmen bid. Millionaires bid against each other. The auction goes global as countries use their bids as leverage in negotiating with other countries for oil rights. It reaches a frenzy unseen in the world since Mr. Wonka decided to release his golden tickets.
Candy Tastes Nice deals effectively with the public consumption of sex and, specifically, women's sexuality. The environment Huba creates—both on the stage and in the details of her story—strips sex of sensuality and exposes the circus of constant media scrutiny. Sex becomes a form of silly putty that can be stretched and contorted to reflect different aspects of popular culture. The result is a terrain where a meaningful discussion of sex becomes impossible because the act itself is devoid of meaning.
Huba and director Shannon Sindelar—utilizing Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's stark lighting and Bobby McElver's haunting sound design—imbue the experience with sharp edges and dark humor. They exercise patience and control with the material, allowing it the necessary build to reveal the very real ways in which the buildup of expectations, a cultural mania, can lead to a dissatisfaction of fulfillment.