The Courtesan: Memoirs from the Grand Horizontal

By Britt Coles, Ruth Margraff, Lynne McCollough and Stephen Nunns
Conceived, choreographed and directed by Kristin Marting
tiny mythic
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Maya T. Amis

Prostitution is at once erotic and passionlessly commercial, a career choice and exploitation. It is a rare work that successfully explores these inherent contradictions, especially given the political and emotional charges the subjects of power and gender carry. The Courtesan is an unusual dance/theatre piece that avoids many of the pitfalls of its subject matter; it neither romanticizes nor preaches. It is an innovative and interesting experiment in alternative performance and was largely successful.

The Courtesan is an abstract piece of history inspired by the stories of six infamous ``grandes horizontales,'' women who were for a time successful in the man's world of mid-19th-century Paris. Rather than telling a linear story, the show used dance, acting, chanted choral speech and an idiosyncratic vocabulary of gestures to portray a series of vignettes, some merely fragments. Although it was effective at evoking a gut feeling for the events portrayed, there was a vagueness that was a bit surprising in a play that boasts four writers, a production historian, and a bibliography. Without a previous knowledge of the subject, it can be difficult to determine who is who, or what exactly is happening.

Casting and performances were particularly good. Maggie Bofill, Jacqueline Gregg, Lea Gulino, Cynthia Hopkins, Ana Veronica Muñoz and Mariana Newhard played the courtesans and made it absolutely apparent that each was an individual despite similarities in employment. The four men (Abraham Amedeo, Carson Coulon, Tim Maner, and Jan-Peter Pedross) served as types rather than individuals (a smitten youth, a politician) and ranged from sad to frightening in their generally unsympathetic roles.

Director Kristin Marting placed her characters around the vast stage to form a panoramic tapestry. Often the staging resembled an intricately shifting waltz of seduction, as women performed their practiced flirtation, each reciting the same lines in turn but under different circumstances. Similarly, brief pieces of narrative (often taken from actual memoirs of courtesans) became choral recitations, with other voices picking up and repeating bits of speeches. The effect was surreal but often beautiful. Another surreal touch worked less well. The director has evolved a vocabulary of seemingly arbitrary gestures that were clearly meant to echo and underline the emotional charge of the material, but they were more puzzling than persuasive, as if gangsta signs had somehow crept into the proceedings. The uninterrupted running time of one hour and 40 minutes was too long. Apart from these problems, though, this was an exciting piece of theatre, erotic and disturbing, that formed a kaleidoscope of images from the lives of the six courtesans and their varied patrons.

Ellen Waggett's set was a large, plain workspace furnished sparsely with gilded pillars, tables, mirrors, a bed, and a bathtub. There was no attempt at realism, but the overall effect was quite successful. Nancy Brous's costumes were first-class. The women's were lovely and seductive: transparent hoop skirts and elaborate lingerie made of found materials, with each dressed in a style and color scheme to suit her personality. The men wore realistic suits appropriate to the period. Chamber-style music--Matthew Pierce (composer/violin); Stephen A. F. Day (cello/operatic tenor); vocal arrangements, Tim Maner--had a foreboding edge.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 1
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 Maya T. Amis

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