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The Perverse Tongue

Also see Sharon's review of The Oldest Man in Show Business

The Perverse Tongue
Jake Eberle (left) as Simon, with Jeffrey Johnson as his lover Eutychus
The Perverse Tongue claims to be a play about a distant future in America in which Christian fundamentalists have taken over the government and run the country based on a strict interpretation of the Bible. But if audiences are expecting an exploration of an American Christian Taliban-like regime, they won't get it here. The theocracy that runs the country in The Perverse Tongue isn't really the purpose of the play, but is instead simply a plot device, necessary for what is, in truth: a modern retelling of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, without the happy ending.

Playwright George Larkin includes an author's note in the program in which he credits Shakespeare, although there is surprisingly no mention of Measure for Measure. (He instead gives a nod to the bloody Titus Andronicus, which is not surprising given that the Bible orders the "perverse tongue" to be "cut out," much like that of Titus's daughter.) But this play is clearly based on Measure. It has its Angelo - a hypocritical religious leader named Asa, who will enforce the law no matter who it harms; its Claudio - a young bride named Leah who is sentenced to death for violating religious law by marrying although she is not a virgin (she had been raped); and its Isabella - Leah's sister Rebekah, who is told by Asa that Leah will be released if Rebekah will yield her own virginity to Asa's lecherous desires. The play even contains its own version of the Duke - a man in disguise who just might be the one person with the authority to save Leah's life and Rebekah's virtue.

The idea of rewriting Measure for Measure as a tragedy isn't necessarily a bad one. (For one thing, it solves the problem of marrying Isabella to the unworthy Duke.) And the idea of a post-apocalyptic America run by religious zealots has potential as well. But neither idea is fully developed in The Perverse Tongue, and the resulting play is a mess of confusing scenes and dialogue pushed too far.

The only Biblical laws that really get considered in The Perverse Tongue are those dealing with sexual relations. But even they aren't seriously discussed. According to Deuteronomy, if a man rapes a woman who is not otherwise betrothed, he is to pay her father a fixed sum and then must marry the woman. The law was probably intended to provide for any child of the union, as well as to guarantee the now-unmarriable woman a home. In The Perverse Tongue, this law is punitively applied. By the time Leah's rape has been revealed, she is married to a man who loves her and wants to remain married to her. This is of no matter to Asa; he chooses to force her into marriage to her rapist. At one point in the play, Asa orders Leah's loving husband killed. It is not clear why - he hasn't committed any offense - but Asa can only order Leah into marriage to her rapist if her own husband is out of the picture. Additionally, Asa has also sentenced Leah to death for lying in court (about her virginity). Why this sentence is suspended is never satisfactorily explained. The only real explanation that can be offered for any of this is that the playwright wanted to have Asa force Leah into marriage with her rapist, and everything which may have stood in the way of this plot point (be it other husbands or other death sentences) just had to be pushed out of the way.

While the overall plot has its problems, many individual scenes fail to connect as well. In what is probably the best monologue of the play, a man who is about to be put to death for homosexuality speaks his mind about why the Bible's prohibition on homosexuality should not be accepted. It's a persuasive speech, which ultimately questions all of Biblical morality, and it is well delivered by actor Jake Eberle as Simon, a beaten man who is finally unafraid to speak his mind. But at the very end of the speech, Simon suggests that God himself must be a self-loathing homosexual - the audience rolls its eyes, and playwright Larkin loses whatever ground he may have gained.

The cast is uneven, although the better performances are in the better-written parts. The characters who actually have some moral crises over whether Biblical laws should be enforced are much more interesting and convincing than those who are simply written as purely evil. When the script has two bad guys brew up a nefarious plot, look each other in the eye, slowly nod and conspiratorially say, "hmmm," there just isn't enough in the script to make them convincing as genuinely scary villains - and Larkin pays the price for this when the play's final bloody scene elicits only laughs from the audience.

There are a lot of good ideas behind The Perverse Tongue. Given our nation's recent overthrow of a foreign religious regime, the time is right for an indictment of those in America who flirt with religious absolutism. But Larkin seems more concerned with simply using this idea in order to drive his revenge tragedy plot, rather than giving it the attention it deserves, and the better play he could have written remains unwritten.

The Perverse Tongue runs at the Met Theatre in Hollywood, Mondays through Wednesdays, through December 18. For reservations and information, call (323) 957-1152 or click themettheatre.com

The Perverse Tongue. Written and Produced by George Larkin; Directed by Denise Barnard. Costume design Robert Hensley; Dramaturg Scott Horstein; Fight choreographer Brian Reynolds; Light board operator Phil Young; Lighting design Aaron Francis; Music design Akin Adams; Photographer Victor Isaac; Program design Rob Carlson; Props by Eileen's prop shop; Publicist Phil Sokoloff; Sound board operator Tyler Tanner; Stage Manager Ilona Pacek.

Cast:
Maria Cina - Rebekah
Laura Esposito - Leah
Jake Eberle - Simon
Robert Factor - Ramses
Greg Good - Paul
David Grammer - Asa
Christopher Janney - Boaz
Jeffrey Johnson - Eutychus
Christina Linhardt - Jesse
Mike Ratterman - Ezekial
Gina Tuttle - Uriah
Ho-Kwan Tse - Nebuchadnezzar
Mark McClain Wilson - James
Miles Wiltshire - Michael

Photo by Victor Isaac


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- Sharon Perlmutter




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