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A CurtainUp Review

by Les Gutman
I am a mannequin.
---The Pope

Alan Cumming
A. Cumming
No, Elle does not have anything to do with the fashion magazine of the same name, even though it features splendiferous costumes designed by Vivienne Westwood that might well grace the pages of that periodical. Rather, the title refers to the Pope (Alan Cumming).

Odd, you say? Well consider this: the original title of the play (written by Jean Genet, never performed during his lifetime and never before performed in English at all) was Sainteté, which means "Holiness," the proper form of address for the Pontiff. Those whose knowledge of French grammar is as inadequate as mine may wish to be told that Sainteté is a feminine noun. Go figure.

A photographer (Anson Mount) has been summoned to the papal apartments to record an image of the pope that can be disseminated to his flock. For the first twenty minutes or so, an usher (Stephen Spinella) makes the visitor comfortable, plying him with coffee and offering him sugar cubes he insists on calling "popes". Their conversation is filled with protocol, reverence and an seemingly warped sense of wonderment. "Who would dare say they have seen her?" the usher asks. (Yes, this pope is referred to as "her".) When the pope finally makes his unimaginably grand entrance, the photographer will begin to learn more than he bargained for about the limitations of his craft.

Although Elle focuses on the pope, and Genet clearly has less-than-charitable needling of the Church on his mind, its substance attends a broader subject: it's an existential meditation of the meaning of images. When a man kneels at the Pope's foot, His Holiness inquires, is it in veneration of the foot, or is it the act of kneeling that is significant? If the photographer's daughter's favorite saint is Joan of Arc, does she want to be her (e.g., to die a virgin), or to look like her? These "image" issues are troubling the Pope as he battles with his own essence. What you see is not what you get, he might have said.

Genet's construct doesn't uncover much that is original here, but his point is intriguing nonetheless, especially in our contemporary world filled with media manipulation and photo-op packaging. Cumming has taken Genet's cards and trumped them. His Pope, wearing a bare-shouldered, bare-assed gown, roller skates and a helmet adorned with a glittery "P," speaks an in-your-face vernacular and sounds like Mel Brooks channeling Fanny Brice. His arrival, accompanied by much pomp-and-circumstance, recalls that of the Wizard of Oz. It's a gilded invitation for Cumming to go over the top, and he accepts. Some will accuse him of just doing what he does best, but one can't help but marvel at his ability to execute it. And for all of his campiness and now-signature outrageousness, Cumming does not lose sight of the underlying anguish as his Pope acknowledges that he has "destroyed the image by refusing to perpetuate it". Here we have a backstage look at an image wrestling with reality.

No one competes with Cumming onstage, but Stephen Spinella is masterful as his servant -- courageously walking the confounding tightrope between officious decorum and depravity. Anson Mount's Photographer has the longest path to travel, arriving as an innocent, and slowly becoming aware of what his camera actually does. The cast also includes two other characters, positioned to make lesser points: a Cardinal (Chad L. Coleman) -- he wears a fuchsia gown and very high heels -- and a second photographer (Brian Duguay), a double of the first, who is photographing his counterpoint.

The back wall of Tim Hatley's set features video projections of images from the camera. It is a multimedia experience that entices us to fall prey to the videographer's manipulations even as the reality of Mr. Cumming's performance competes for our attention. We stand with the Pope, in the horns of his dilemma.

by Jean Genet in a new version by Alan Cumming based on a literal translation by Terry Gordon
Directed by Nick Philippou

with Stephen Spinella, Anson Mount, Chad L. Coleman, Alan Cumming and Brian Duguay
Design: Tim Hatley
Costume Design: Vivienne Westwood
Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound Design: Robert Gould
Projections: Peter Nigrini
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission
A production of The Art Party
The Zipper, 336 West 37th Street (8/9 Aves)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
Opening July 25, 2002, closing July 31, 2002
FRI @ 7 and 7, SAT, MON - WED @8; 25-45
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/24 performance

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