In Chapter Five of MMQ, I analyze how the ennobling excesses of classical opera inform the theatricality of the contemporary plays The Lisbon Traviata by Terrence McNally and Porcelain by Chay Yew. Playwright David Johnston and composer Jeffery Dennis Smith alter this dynamic by bringing the irony and dark humor so often found in contemporary plays to their original one-act modern opera. As performed at Le Poisson Rouge on January 11, the provocatively titled Why Is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? begins in a police holding cell, where a middle-aged white gay man declares his innocence of a terrible crime and then tells us his story.
Like many an operatic heroine, he falls passionately—which is to say irrationally—in love with a young man, a rising art-world star whom he knows only through photos in magazines. At the same time that he develops this romantic obsession, he also begins to have visions of Eartha Kitt (who is, of course, dead) hunting him down, first with a machete in a laundromat, then with a machine gun inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As sung by the tenor Keith Jameson, with music performed by the American Lyric Theatre’s Chamber Ensemble, Eartha Kitt smartly appropriates operatic conventions in a manner that is simultaneously ironic and earnest. The obsessive passions of our main character are shown to be delusional, even rather ridiculous—and yet the beauty of the music and the poetry of the lyrics also make his love noble and compelling. Similarly, the threat of violence throughout the play is rather preposterous—and yet it illuminates the deeper fears and anxieties of the main character. His fantasies about his own death at the hands of Ms. Kitt and about the death of his beloved aggrandize his love, making it a matter of life and death, but also dramatizing the impossibility of this love ever being realized or fulfilled.
Johnston’s libretto ultimately takes a beautiful turn into the surreal, so it’s hard to separate reality from fantasy at the end of the play. But the main character’s revelation of a passionate moment of violence that may have caused the young artist’s death inspires both pity and fear. By making a gay man the protagonist in this tale of love and madness, Eartha Kitt has “camped” classical opera, but it also treats gay passion as a subject worthy of finely crafted lyrics, gorgeous music, and a beautifully expressive voice. The American Lyric Theatre concert presentation was, hopefully, a step in the development of this unique work that will lead to a full production.
The operatic strains of Maria Callas’s Medea bring the audience into the world of Aaron Mark’s Another Medea, performed by Tom Hewitt at the Wild Project, produced by All For One, a company dedicated to solo performances. Hewitt plays an actor who once worked as the understudy for one Marcus Sharp, who has committed a horrible crime and is now serving a life sentence in prison. The understudy obsesses about his former colleague (and double), writes to him, and then visits him in prison. He then “becomes” Marcus, sitting across from him at a table in the prison’s visiting room, telling his story.
Students of Euripides will, of course, know exactly the shape and outcome of this story, but the playwright cleverly recreates the classical tragedy in contemporary terms. Perhaps most ingeniously, he makes his main character quite knowledgeable about the Medea legend and all of its variations, so Marcus is fully aware of his own position as yet “another Medea.” The play expands into a philosophical exploration of why this story of filicide has proven so persistent in our culture, why it continues to fascinate and horrify.
Marcus is an actor who becomes the live-in lover of an extremely wealthy British doctor named Jason. Marcus gives up his home, his friends, and his career to please Jason—he even fathers children with Jason’s sister in order to fulfill Jason’s desire to be a parent. But in living his life so completely for Jason, Marcus loses any life of his own, which makes him rather boring and tedious to Jason, who soon finds love with a younger man and kicks Marcus out.
Feeling desperately abandoned and betrayed, feeling that he has no other path forward, Marcus enacts a horrifying vengeance. Once again, dramatic violence elevates a gay character’s passions, making them a matter of life and death, worthy of moving an audience with pity and fear. In its appropriation of the Medea legend to tell the story of a contemporary gay man, the play can also be read as an expression of anxiety over the quest for affluence, stability, and “normalcy” that characterizes so much of the mainstream gay rights movement at this moment.
Tom Hewitt is perhaps best known for playing dark yet seductive villains, with Broadway roles including Dracula, Frank-N-Furter, Scar, and Pontius Pilate. A handsome actor with a beautiful baritone voice, Hewitt’s monologue performance is a sort of “aria,” and the minimalist staging—he simply sits at a table, center stage—focuses the audience’s attention on the story and the artistry with which it’s told. Like Eartha Kitt, Another Medea is aware of its appropriations, and it uses theatrical artistry to create a degree of empathy for its queer character and position him within the ennobling realm of “high art”—in this case, Greek tragedy.
Yet Aaron Mark ultimately treats his subject with a degree of ambivalence that is both honest and intelligent. After Marcus has finished telling his story, he suggests to his understudy that he might write and perform a play about him. Hewitt again becomes the understudy, but he can’t really articulate his feelings about this story. He clearly relates to Marcus, still seeing him as a double, someone whom, given other circumstances or twists of fate, he could potentially be. Yet Marcus remains a mystery to him, perhaps because he is ultimately incomprehensible, or perhaps because to admit his similarity to Marcus—the fact that we are all capable of such madness and violence—would be too painful.
Another Medea, which runs through January 31, creates a compelling new version of this tale of love, madness, and violence, never attempting to “explain” or resolve these passions, but enriching our ongoing struggle to comprehend our own dark potentials.