The new production of Elle, now playing at the Zipper, has a number of heavy burdens to bear.
Yes, it is the premiere production of The Art Party, the new company founded by Alan Cumming, Nick Philippou, and Audrey Rosenberg, and it's also the first time the play has been performed in English. But a greater burden is the play itself - can something like this do anything but shudder under its own weight?
The answer is both yes and no. Elle is daring, yes, but in its mad desire to drive its points home by shocking and prodding, it undermines its own ability to say what it wants. This production, an adaptation by Cumming (from a translation by Terri Gordon), suffers from no shortage of vocabulary, only from the lack of a creative one.
But Elle is lacking creatively in few other ways. Nick Philippou's direction is sharp and focused, while Tim Hatley's set is dazzling in its (apparent) simplicity, but great adaptability. Vivienne Westwood's costumes and Philip S. Rosenberg's lights complete the picture of an almost barely real place.
The place in question is the Vatican. A young photographer (Anson Mount) has arrived to photograph the Pope, but must first contend with the Usher standing guard outside the door (Stephen Spinella).
But the plot of Elle, such as it is, shortly becomes of considerably less importance. Chances are, by the time Alan Cumming's entrance arrives, you won't care much about the specifics of what's going on. The Pope demands reverence, after all, and so does Cumming--though, of course, his Pope is in a strapless gown with no back (quite literally), his hat bearing a glittering "P."
Cumming dominates the play with his appearance and performance, but it all serves to distract from the message that, at this point, the play begins driving forward time and time again: there is a difference between image and reality. The show then becomes something unfortunately typical as each of the characters must accept or reject this before it can conclude.
Yes, there are surprises along the way. Cumming is one - giving a generally mannered but very silly performance, he does whatever he's doing (and "whatever" is a pretty good word to describe it) with great conviction. Another are Peter Nigrini's projections, displaying the door and its surrounding events for most of the show. How real are they? Do they accurately represent what's going on? Still more questions to fuel the play's central argument.
But, while Cumming gives a decidedly unique performance, and Mount makes a fascinating journey from cluelessness to understanding, the cast can't do much with this show. Spinella struggles against the Usher, never finding his footing in the conflicted complications between his love for truth and his love for the ideal. Without this vital first step, the rest of the play all too quickly seems gimmicky and more eager to surprise than enlighten.
Make no mistake about it, Elle is provocative in some good ways; examining how perceptions differ from reality and questioning all aspects of what we see, rather than accepting them on blind faith are of significant importance. And, as Elle was never performed during Genet's lifetime, and has never been performed in English before, the chances are good that few other opportunities to see it will come around again soon.
Still, watching Cumming, as the Pope, decked out in his gown and sitting on a chamber pot is not going to be everyone's idea of theatre. The play's messages aside, Elle proves that sometimes going too far is really not going far enough.
The Art Party