In the premiere of his own play, which has been some ten years in the on-off writing, Wallace Shawn plays a memoirist, Ben, also a scientist and a businessman, who starts out at a lectern in black silk pyjamas and rather rococo black dressing gown, alongside a long cream sofa.
The set, and the outfit, are the same over three hours later, during which time Shawn, as if in a waking dream, recounts his sexual obsessions, mostly with his own genitalia, but also involving three women, his visit to an animal orgy in a castle in the forest, and a white furry cat called Blanche.
Poor old Blanche, who is often caught with her face in human posteriors, is then translated into the feline visage of Miranda Richardson as Ben’s wife, Cerise, and curls up with him in this new cat woman form in a sunlit meadow of buttercups, Ben’s “ancient penis” stirring once more, Ben still chattering and wrapped in his dressing gown.
The narrative progression of the play is less important than the “writing” in the sense that Shawn’s prose, which itself has a feline, fearless quality, allows him to include his thoughts on food, sex and masturbation, all articulated with a sort of pain and wonder at his own helpless humanity.
Richardson as Cerise is replaced in his affections by an even more sensual married woman, Robin, played by American film actress Jennifer Tilly – whose films include The Cat’s Meow, suitably enough – literally bursting out of a skin-tight satin dress and her own smiley cooperation.
Ben’s third sexual accomplice, Emily McDonnell’s subdued and subjugated Rose, is acquired through passing the increasingly difficult Blanche into her care; Blanche has been showered in sperm and violated, along with a recording of Mantovani, with a huge kitchen knife.
Andre Gregory, Shawn’s famous old collaborator on the movies My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, allows the play - is it a play? - to unspool with a generous languor, Eugene Lee’s design including some video sequences suggesting Cerise’s otherworldliness and finally the infinite field of coloured grasses.
The play is odd, strange beyond weird, but uniquely compelling as testimony to a private life expressing a need to go public with horrible honesty. And you won’t be bored for a second.
- Michael Coveney