Assyrian Monkey Fantasy
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 15, 2004
At the heart of Assurbanipal Babilla’s paired solo pieces, performed under the title Assyrian Monkey Fantasy, is the loneliness of exile in all its permutations—from one’s country, from one’s self, from the touch of another human being. In some ways it is the ideal subject for a one-person show. What could be a more apt metaphor for our existential singularity than a lone performer isolated against the black expanse of the stage? Babilla’s title, however, hints at other, more politicized meanings. As he explains in his program note, “Assyrian Monkey” is a sly reference to himself, the image of a monkey evoking both his Chinese birth sign and the racist slurs of his adopted country. (Babilla is an immigrant from Iran.) The “Fantasy” part is a bit trickier (as befits a monkey). While nothing overtly phantasmagorical happens, in both pieces one can’t help but wonder if Babilla is teasing out alternative versions of his own life—even when he appears simply to be telling the truth.
In the first piece, “Confessions of a Latter Day Temple Prostitute,” Babilla plays Dora DuBarry (or is it Dew Berry?), a luscious megastar of the silver screen. In this alternate universe, he is not only an actress but world-famous, gorgeous, and super, super rich. As Dora waits for a man who never arrives, she complains about her manicurist, reenacts scenes from her famous movies, and relates stories of her disastrous attempts to connect sexually with men. One encounter ends with her would-be lothario dead drunk in her lap; another with a piece of rough trade merely dead. She has given up an authentic sexual life for a partial existence as a mediated permanent sexual fantasy—one that can never be fulfilled.
In the second piece, “My Windows in Brooklyn or Welcome to America,” Babilla again plays a sexual fantasy, only this time he’s playing himself. This strange, but purportedly true, story tells of the night his 80-year-old next-door neighbor, Mrs. Anderson, paid him an unexpected visit. This is in the mid-‘80s, while he was lying low from the INS because he was an illegal immigrant from a country that was a sworn enemy of the United States. She begs him to leave Brooklyn because his presence has mesmerized her husband and is destroying her marriage. That the piece ends with him doing the unthinkable—phoning the police and thereby putting his residency status at risk—is just the culmination of a string of ironic reversals that render his story both good theatre and a little too good to be true. Whose fantasy was this really—Mr. Anderson’s? Babilla’s? Or maybe it belongs to the hunky upstairs neighbor who comes to his aid at the end. After all, the story must have had a happy ending—otherwise Babilla wouldn’t be here to tell it.