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Morbid Glee 

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Torso Theatre

Even if they were the last three people left alive in New York City you wouldn't want to know any of them--and you certainly wouldn't want to be any of them. Dwayne, a homosexual schoolboy, has returned home to find his family fled and the house in the hands of the servants, who now refuse him even his overcoat. Holly is a pregnant housewife from a small southern town who has just left her mortician husband to seek her fortune in the Great Urban Unknown. Both end up at the Terminal Bar, now deserted but for Martinelle the hooker, who has assumed hostess duties for the owner while he does business on the phone. With a radio looted from a Christmas window display, the three of them listen as newscasts trace the progress of the mysterious epidemic that has devastated the huge metropolis.

By 1991, when I first saw Paul Selig's grimly humorous tale of love at the Bailiwick Directors Festival, the hysteria accompanying the initial announcements of a mysterious fatal disease (later known as AIDS) already seemed oddly distant. Terminal Bar, written in 1988, incorporates the paranoid superstitions of an earlier time in its vision of biological Armageddon: Martinelle speaks of a group of frenzied nuns firebombing the city to cleanse it. Even as Holly's husband was embalming his neighbors' children, he doggedly insisted that his worried spouse was immune to the illness--"You couldn't have it. You're a Christian!" Charlie the bar owner has responded to the visual evidence of infection by destroying all the mirrors in his place. Holly is convinced that the contagion is airborne and holds her breath when she suspects that miasmic danger is near.

But there are also reports of perverse glee--"What fun to die and be an event!" Dwayne's friend Iris exults, reveling in the media attention. And there's a twisted sort of peripeteia, as when a lifelong transvestite declares on his deathbed, "Enough already! My name is Sherman!" and dons male attire for his imminent burial. Martinelle's wry courage and jocularity are echoed by the weary Dwayne, who suggests, "Maybe we could turn on the lights and have last call." He reminds Martinelle that her hair and fingernails will keep growing after her death. "Hey, Holly," Martinelle jauntily replies, "do you think your husband could exhume me once a month for a manicure and a perm?"

Despite its shadow-of-the-grave laughs, Selig's play could easily have wallowed in lachrymose necrophilia--and conversely it could also have ballooned into overblown "Carry On Undertaker" farce. But director Billy Bermingham shrewdly maintains the equilibrium of sarcasm and sentimentality at all times. Credit for that balance also goes to Alexandra Billings as Martinelle. Her deadpan comic delivery mines each line for maximum effect. Even a simple self-introduction--"I'm Martinelle. That's French for . . . sumpthin'"--comes out of Billings's mouth charming and funny. And her stage presence equals that of the Statue of Liberty (whom she impersonates, at one point, in betasseled pasties and gilded roller skates, somehow retaining her dignity and aplomb throughout). Amanda Bleu likewise takes no prisoners in her fearless portrayal of Holly, a grotesque caricature of Anita Bryant et al (though Bleu's hairdo and accent suggest, rather unfairly, Dolly Parton more than La Bryant). Finally, David vanWert makes a sensitive and boyishly wistful Dwayne, but he cannot help being little more than a straight man for Bleu and Billings.

Since 1990 Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack has been the sole representative of Torso Theatre, so it may come as a surprise to learn that Torso also does conventional plays. (Remember The Mating Dance? Isadora Duncan Sleeps With the Russian Navy?) Besides being a pleasant reminder of the solid nuts-and-bolts artistry of Bermingham and company, Terminal Bar is a manifestly presentable and unsensationalistic piece of work that just might garner Torso the recognition it deserves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Billy Bermingham.


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