note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Quentin Crisp … Bette Bourne
I’ve been doing these scribbles for over a year now; not only have I seen many local productions --- good, bad or indifferent --- I have sat with various kinds of audiences: enthusiastic, curious or bored. And then there is an audience whose presence you feel by its very absence --- a sort of anti-audience which stays away from certain productions regardless of their excellence. It may plead the price of theatre tickets or a show not being its cup of tea, or --- gulp --- it doesn’t want to think, but to be entertained, when in reality it stays away out of fear, ignorance or prejudice. This is the hardest audience to crack and should something New or Daring be trotted out onto a stage, the producer and his company can only hope for a miracle or an award that will propel their show into the Must See Category. In the past month alone, I’ve seen an innovative production of UNDER MILK WOOD (Ablaze Theatre Initiative) play to only a quarter of its house, while the Huntington’s less-than-inspired A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY packed ‘em in (ah, the siren call of subscriptions!). Twice I’ve attended ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE at the Stoneham Theatre where I saw not a single twenty-something or younger enjoying the lady and her music, yet thousands of all ages parked themselves in the Commons for Boston Lyric’s open-air CARMEN --- the cynic in me declaring because (1) the weather was agreeable and (2) the performances were free; CARMEN itself having little to do with it. And now The Theatre Offensive has completed its 11th Annual Festival of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Theater --- playing adjacent to thought-provoking BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE (Zeitgeist Stage Company), which is pining for an audience. Just as I am convinced that white audiences aren’t flocking to BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE --- one of the year’s best --- because it deals with African-American women (are black audiences staying away because a white man wrote the play?), I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that straight audiences avoided the Festival on the grounds it was, well, Offensive. This was my first attendance at the Festival, and I caught only the final performance of Tim Fountain’s one-man-show, RESIDENT ALIEN, and I say to the anti-audience that it was its own loss for not attending because it missed what may be the year’s finest individual performance: Bette Bourne in his Obie-winning role as the one and only Quentin Crisp.
Quentin Crisp (1908-99), of course, was the Englishman who came out long before it became fashionable to do so --- partly to make a statement about injustice, partly in order to survive, and he survived cleverly and with style. Ridiculed for being effeminate, Mr. Crisp learned to play along with society and went them one better by being so outrageous with his dyed hair, make-up, and mannerisms that he robbed society’s ridicule of its sting, becoming in time one of the ‘stately homos of England’. He was the author of several books, including THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT (the title refers to his days as a nude model for art classes), which was made into a trailblazing TV movie starring John Hurt. Always fascinated with America, Mr. Crisp eventually settled in New York as a ‘resident alien’, where, aside from playing Lack Bracknell on stage and Queen Elizabeth on film and performing in his own one-man show, he became famous for Being Famous, the style and Wildean wit still intact well into very old age.
RESIDENT ALIEN takes place in Mr. Crisp’s cramped, filthy one-room apartment at the Chelsea Hotel --- it may surprise many that Mr. Crisp was indeed a Somebody, but never a wealthy Somebody; like Blanche DuBois, he relied on the kindness of strangers, i.e., editors, columnists and the curious. On a winter afternoon, while waiting to be taken out for an interview, the elderly Mr. Crisp speaks slowly and elegantly to the audience about himself both as a young man and as an old one (now with eczema, angina and a paralyzed left hand); his thoughts on Love, Life and, most of all, Style; and his day-to-day life in the Chelsea Hotel --- which includes a fellow tenant dropping dead mice through his door slot. There is no plot per se, but with a personality such as Mr. Crisp’s, you don’t need one. In order to fascinate, you need to be fascinating, and Mr. Crisp is --- was --- fascinating.
Bette Bourne has been playing Mr. Crisp for so long that the fusion of actor and role was completely seamless. Aside from a wig of thinning upswept hair, Mr. Bourne did not resemble Mr. Crisp --- he would have had to sharpen his features with putty and such --- but his appearance didn’t matter because he captured the essence of his subject so well, playing him as a strict but kindly nanny with a shady past. Any young actor (or actress) would have found Mr. Bourne to be a treasure trove on the art of creating a character, for the veteran Mr. Bourne had it all: stage presence, personality, superb timing (so important in a one-person show) and texture. That last ingredient --- texture --- is the sign of a great actor; the ability to bring layers of thought, feeling and action to a role (while staying in character, of course), especially when a playwright does not include these things in his stage directions. Some of Mr. Bourne’s actions --- swinging a dead mouse around by its tail before discarding it; peeling a potato and then pocketing the skins in his jacket --- are not part of Mr. Fountain’s script; they are wonderful additions from Mr. Bourne in collaboration with his author/director. And the play’s most stunning little coup is definitely not to be found on the written page: when Mr. Crisp tries to fry a solitary egg, the script has him mutter, “Why does the yolk always break?” On the night I attended, Mr. Bourne flared up, spat out the line, and slapped the counter with his spatula --- for one brief moment, the impeccible Mr. Crisp vanished, leaving behind an angry, bitter old man living alone in a filthy room, having made his stylish bed long, long ago and now having to lie in it for that’s all he has. You could say a rock smashed through a stained-glass window; how moving to watch Mr. Crisp/Bourne then put his persona back together again --- that Wildean sin: bad manners. To quote a press release from the London Times, “Now that Crisp is dead, this thoroughly enjoyable evening is the closest thing you’ll get to an ‘at home’ with the 91-year-old eccentric.” The Messrs. Fountain and Bourne made that statement quite, quite true.
Whoever designed the set (a group effort?) evoked all too well the filth and clutter in contrast to Mr. Crisp’s elegance (truly a rose in a dung heap!); whoever supplied the costumes greatly assisted in Mr. Bourne’s impersonation: the velvet jacket, the neck scarf and, especially, the shapeless hat still worn rakishly at an angle. All in all, a memorable evening of theatre; an event not to have been missed --- and it was, by many. If I’ve a bone to pick, it is the “written by” tagline in the program. Since Mr. Fountain lifts whole sections from Mr. Crisp’s own AN EVENING WITH QUENTIN CRISP and who knows from what other sources, a more appropriate tagline would have been “conceived by Tim Fountain” or “adapted by Tim Fountain from the life and words of Quentin Crisp”. Mr. Fountain has indeed put together an excellent entertainment, but he didn’t invent Quentin Crisp --- only Mr. Crisp did.
The Gold Dust Orphans will soon be bringing their production of (S)CARRIE to Machine in the basement of the Ramrod, and later this month the Coyote Theatre will be offering a revision of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Will I --- or won’t I --- see you there?