by JK Clarke
Greek plays, the foundation of Western theater, are often rather complex and layered stories. But when modern playwrights weave contemporary issues and politics into these plays, they become significantly more complicated. And then there’s Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini, a mid-twentieth century filmmaker, poet, novelist and playwright, is most notorious for his shockingly sexually explicit and controversial 1975 film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which blends the eponymous sexual sadism novel of the Marquis de Sade with Dante, Nietzsche, Pound and Proust. Keeping this in mind, it’s no surprise that Pasolini’s rarely seen play, Pylade (now running at LaMaMa through the end of this week), is both remarkably intricate and sexually explicit.
Pylade takes the fractured friendship of Orestes and Pylade, from Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy (in which Orestes, with the help of his friend and cousin Pylades, kills his mother and her lover to avenge the death of his father) to study two divergent paths of idealism: Stalinist Communism and Chinese Communism and both systems’ inherent corruption and failures. The standoff between Orestes and Pylade (following Athena’s introduction of a new matriarchal-patriarchal society) represents the problems created after breaking down bourgeois society and attempting to rebuild a utopian state. The schism between populist ideals and the inevitability of corrupt leadership is the thrust of the play, with Orestes representing established leadership (the Power of the King) and Pylade rejecting his heritage completely (“it’s the first time in history: A Rich Man Dreams of Being a Poor Man,” he says) to side with the peasants (the cult of the Furies). But the conscience of the people (the Chorus) understand that it all amounts to ruin: “He wants to take down our institutions: But not to substitute them for others . . . He wants to destroy and that is all.” It’s a long way to go to tell a story (although the allusion to the failures of communist movements of the mid-twentieth century are clear) but Pasolini undoubtedly displays his own passion and intensity in the piece, colored, no doubt, by his communist affiliation, fascist father, homosexuality and general libertine notions. With the help of the Great Jones Repertory Company Performers the ferocity of the message is intensified.
If by now your eyes have rolled back in your head, hold on for a second. While important and significant, it’s vital to understand that the text is more of a guy-wire for this play-and-movement experimental theater piece. It could easily be material for a 10-week college course, but under Ivica Buljan’s fine direction and the company’s terrific performances—especially that of Marko Mandić in the lead role—it also makes for an intense and entertaining (if difficult to digest at times) evening of theater.
While this production is underscored by a great deal of full-frontal nudity and graphically explicit sexual scenarios (some of which will give you pause upon your next trip to a fruit stand)—none of which, upon reflection, are at all gratuitous—this is a play about fanatical passion. The players, particularly Mia Yoo (Electra) and Maura Nguyen Donohue (Athena), John Gutierrez (Boy/Foreigner) and especially Mandić, attack the material with such energy and vigor that one becomes concerned for their safety. At one point Mandić hoists a large tree trunk over his head, seemingly struggling with what is no doubt a prop, we think, for several minutes. But when he allows it to crash to the floor, it shakes the room enough that we realize it’s real and must weigh at least 30 pounds. That Mandić is in remarkable shape—if one wanted to study the human muscular system on a live body, his would be the one to use— still doesn’t allow for how difficult the feat must be. Throughout the play the actors scrum, wrestle, dance, leap, shout, run, climb, pound chests and . . . well, just about anything else athletic and strenuous you can imagine, and often in the nude. Surely they will need several weeks of rest, recovery and pain killers to repair the cuts, scratches and bruises when the play comes to a close this weekend.
Taken as merely a dance/movement project Pylade is fairly riveting. But with time allowed to digest its full meaning and timeless socio-political significance, it’s the sort of production that will have an enduring impact on anyone who has the good fortune to see it.
Pylade. NOTE: This play is features extensive full-frontal nudity and contains extremely sexually explicit material and is not appropriate for underage or immature audiences. Two remaining performances: Thursday, December 17 and Friday December 18 at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th Street, between 2nd Avenue and The Bowery). www.LaMaMa.org
Photos by Theo Cote