Now that Cherry Red Productions is back on the boards in Washington with a production of Justin Tanner’s Wife Swappers, (at the DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan), everyone seems to be having sweaty flashbacks to the CR good old days.
A lot of them seem to center on Coyote Woman, the 2003 play staged by Cherry Red, written by California playwright Justin Tanner.
I’m not a Cherry Red aficionado in terms of seeing a lot of their plays and wouldn’t admit to it anyway, but Coyote Woman was my Cherry Red moment, nonetheless. It was, I swear, something of an accident. On a weekend early in 2004, I was out of sorts, left with just my dog, spending the weekend alone, home alone on a Saturday night, I can’t remember why.
So I booked myself to check out Coyote Woman, mainly because I’d been getting press releases from the folks at Cherry Red Productions for quite some time. I loved reading them; they seemed to be coming from escaped cast members of the cast of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, bordering on the obscene. They were so silly, so unbelievable and fresh, that I thought, what the hell, how bad could it get?
Actually, pretty bad. And pretty good, too. Which may sum up the history and work of Cherry Red productions in a nutshell, except, who could leave it at that?
Obviously, those scavengers looking for smut to smite never made it to Coyote Woman, but the Washington Post did, as well as Metro Weekly, the Washington Blade, the City Paper, Digital City and, can you believe it, the Georgetowner with my very own words quoted: “Flying body parts, lewdness, nipples and four letter words!” Must have struck a nerve.
Coyote Woman was about a woman named Janet, an animal control officer in Los Angeles County, who had the misfortune to be bitten by a coyote, the beast that’s LA’s equivalent of werewolves. And you know what happens: well, check out the title. Presto, she became Lucrezia Blozia: The Coyote Woman. You have to love a show which has a heroine that works as an animal control officer.
This all took place at the Warehouse Theater right across the street from the rising Convention Center. It wasn’t actually IN the Warehouse Theater, it was some even smaller version called Warehouse Next door. And you know what: that part of me that I don’t talk about with too many people: my dog, my imaginary friend, perhaps, felt right at home. In the small and tightly packed audience, was a group of people who usually hang out in bars where you knock twice and the doorman looks to see if you’re weird enough to come in. There was a seventy-ish old guy in a shiny black leather jacket with a 30-something redhead, could have been a guy, could have been a girl; teenagers sneaking out of the house; punksters who hadn’t gotten the news that punk was dead; Europeans, of course, with French or possibly Russian accents. And things happened: body parts, seemingly torn from bodies, came flying into the audience; it got loud, clumsy, violent, and zombie-like. There were nipples, too.
For some reason, my bad-mood-blues disappeared, I was a little thrilled, engaged (not to anybody, just engaged), and fascinated by this total immersion into vulgarity, and the energy it generated. This was, I imagined, the last performance on the Titanic that they never show in movies, sticking to the Hungarian string quartet, instead.
It was a wonder nobody ran out screaming.
“Actually, that did happen every now and then with our plays,” Ian Allen, the co-founder with the incomparable Chris Griffin of Cherry Red Productions back in 1995.
Wife Swappers is Cherry Red’s first full stage production in three years, “mainly because I moved to New York, and we got into feature films . That would be “Snuff Movie” (as opposed to a snuff movie, I mean this is Cherry Red, you know) and “Trapped by Mormons.”
“I think we built up quite a fan base,” he said. “Over the years, a lot of our actors became something like underground heroes in the community. But it wasn’t just outrageousness, per se, or the fact that we did horrible, horrible things on stage that you would never see anywhere else. Lots of people came to our plays. It wasn’t just an underground kind of thing with an underground audience; we were a part of the Washington theater community.” And one greeted with great affection, if reports from opening night “Wife Swappers are any indication. “We’re a cult thing to many people, sure, but we’re also about what theater is all about.”
“In a nutshell,” Allen said, “we do plays that nobody else will do, for starters. We appeal to the senses—ALL your senses. We do plays that are physically challenging, full of all sorts of energy, they’re full of sex and violence, and remarkable occasions. I think that’s why people liked us and came. I mean, we had a play called Dingleberries, which was about what you might expect and once you get people to accept what the actors were doing on stage, well, you’re home free.”
Allen and Griffin—Allen calls him the Charles Busch of Washington—started their company squarely on the fringe, the outskirts, the very edge of the theater world where you might find ex-punk rock drummers, disaffected postal employees, cross-dressers and drag queens, but also anybody that loved new and over the edge-and-off-the-cliff theater. In short, Cherry Red was Fringe when fringe wasn’t cool.
They had influence, too. You could see it at Woolly occasionally, in theater groups that didn’t last long, in the bizarre content of plays written by new playwrights (House of Gold recently had a very devout, bloody Cherry Red moment), and of course in any number of plays that came to the city by way of the Fringe Festival, including one a couple of years ago at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room.
Venues for Cherry Red—and edgy theater—were often iffy and fun, allowing for theater as a close contact, full-bodied and bloody sport.
“Well, we played in tiny places, small places and places bigger than that,” Allen said.
Sometimes, reading the titles alone was a hoot. If you read them aloud on a Metro bus, you might get arrested: Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, Angel S—, Poona the F—dog and Other Plays for Children, Dingleberries, “Worm Girl” and Baked Baby, to name a few, and you can thank me later for doing that.
Some of this, of course, reminds you of the work of Charles Ludlum and Charles Busch, who spoofed B movies of yore in over-the-top, hugely entertaining plays like The Mystery of Irma Vep and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (a three-for), prime examples of what was dubbed “Theater of the Ridiculous”. A strong part of the ridiculous was also affection, the plays treated the source material with respect and even love while lampooning them with a theatrical harpoon.
Something similar is at work with Cherry Red: even at their most discomfiting, they’re plays with characters that resemble people, as opposed to mere easy targets or caricatures.
“That’s it exactly,” Allen said. “We do plays by up and coming, brave playwrights, but they’re real plays.”
Or, as one of the actors in Wife Swappers put it, “people may come for the T&A (and lots of people do), but they stay for the people.”
Wife Swappers is no Coyote Woman, although they’re both written by Justin Tanner, who’s beginning to make a name for himself in the semi-mainstream theater community. No werewolves, zombies, or body parts pulled from body and thrown out like so much garbage. Just a group of middle aged conservative wife swappers who are naked most of the time, talking about sex in the most graphic and casual way (doing a three-way comes up a number of times), or having arguments about the merits of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”.
Going to the rehearsal seemed an appropriately furtive experience. We visited the cast during the tail end of the rehearsal at the small, cluttered DCAC space by the back door entrance. (When you do something on Cherry Red, everything sometimes sounds somehow wrong). Anyway, you knock on the back door and instead of a guy named Joe, co-director Kate Debelack answers and leads you through the back stage area, where actors Catherine Aselford, Lucrezia Blozia, (she’s back), Tony Greenberg, Richard Renfield, Kris Roth, Carlos Bustamente, Judith Baicich and Michael Myazaki are lounging around, clothed, partially, or not.
Pretty soon, front and center, you don’t notice that except for the guy that has only one, um, appendage prominently on display like a lone Christmas tree ornament. What you get—in addition to the usual rehearsal business of moving this way, that way, using this prop or not—is how CLOSE you are to the people. There is a temptation—especially with the “Passion of Christ” chatter—to argue with them.
It’s theater. Secrets have been lying around in the hearts, and attractive bosoms of these people, and they must come out of the bag, just as they do with Hamlet, Oscar Wilde, Shaw and American Buffalo. Or when you try to explain why the Visa card bill wasn’t paid.
And they do.
In this play, even the furtive hearts of swingers can break, I am betting.
No arms come flying. Just sweat, spent passion and lost chances
Plus, of course, the sex, the T&A, and so forth.
Welcome Back, Cherry Red.