Yes, yes, yes, we all know that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, although I think it's seduced more powerful men into selling their souls -- like Henry Kissinger, the morally decayed author of that quote -- than it has nubile young women into hopping in bed with the old goats. But the sex-power connection is the territory that Rob Handel mines in Aphrodisiac, now in a regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company.
Handel's inspiration is the affair between Congressman Gary Condit and intern Chandra Levy, which erupted in the media after Levy disappeared in 2001. Her body was discovered a year later; although suspicion clouded his career, Condit was never officially accused of murder. Aphrodisiac approaches this story obliquely. Handel's congressman, Dan Ferris, and his mistress, Ilona Waxman, never appear on stage. Instead, Ferris's son and daughter listen to the news, analyze the affair and speculate on who their father really is, role-playing in an attempt to heighten their understanding. We sense that son Avery, who works in the mayor's office in D.C., is rather like his father, distant and controlled. Daughter Alma is revulsed by politics and as far from being a Washington insider as humanly possible; she's also more volatile and more vulnerable than her brother.
While Aphrodisiac is, to some extent, a play of ideas -- and even more a play about play-acting -- Alma and Avery are real characters, products of a sadly dysfunctional family, and we feel some empathy for them. It helps that the roles are performed with wit, depth and humor by Josh Robinson and Jessica Robblee. When Alma first impersonates Ilona, she makes her father's mistress a little off-kilter, high-voiced and with an unpleasant, artificial laugh. By the time she revisits the role at the end of the play, her interpretation has deepened, along with her understanding of just who Ilona might have been and what she'd gone through.
One of the play's high points occurs when Avery imagines his father in conversation with Willie Nelson, Keith Richards and President Bill Clinton (an invisible but ubiquitous presence here, with the spirits of Ted Kennedy and Mark Foley peering over his shoulder). The group is discussing whether Clinton should make a public statement about the death of Kurt Cobain: Would such a statement harm or help Clinton's image? Does his base care about Cobain? Finally, purportedly as his father, Avery leaps to his feet and delivers an impassioned tribute to the musician, a plea for sincerity. Alma reminds him that he's gotten off track; his anecdote was supposed to focus on promiscuity. On one level, this brilliant and very funny scene feels like the playwright letting his own creativity get away from him -- taking pleasure in the unexpected turns and twists it has taken. But on another, you sense that it represents Avery's personal passions breaking through the reserved manner he learned from his father. (When Handel's dialogue soars into monologue like this, it yields some of the jazzy, helium pleasure you get from Sam Shepard's early work, though it has none of Shepard's totemic symbolism.)
It doesn't surprise us when Monica Lewinsky herself appears toward the play's end, as the siblings argue in a coffee shop. That her presence doesn't remind us of a thousand snickering late-night jokes is a tribute both to Handel's playwriting and to Mare Trevathan's riveting performance, simultaneously dopey and deep. Lewinsky tells Alma and Avery how insubstantial and irrelevant their imaginings are, and makes it clear that she was in love with Clinton -- or, at least, with some fusion of who he was and what he represented. And when she describes how she wept on the president's chest after he refused to give himself fully by coming in her mouth, and realized even as she wept that his attention was not on her but on his chair in the Oval Office, we finally understand the tightness and intricacy of the sex-power knot.
That knot will always titillate and inspire, even if it's nothing new. Shakespeare certainly knew something about it: The seductive power of high office taints Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia, causes poor Lady Anne to literally lose her head in Richard III, and raises cynically unanswerable questions when Henry V woos the French princess after conquering her country ("We are the makers of manners, Kate"). In Aphrodisiac, it's more like an extended parlor game, albeit a game with moments of resonance. While Alma and Avery seem distressed by the possibility that their father may be not only a philanderer but a murderer, you never see them taking apart his every action and utterance in search of some nuance they hadn't caught before, and the script never fully evokes the anguish that real families must feel in these circumstances.
Still, under the hand of director Bonnie Metzgar, this is a wonderful evening of theater, an elegant, sure-footed production of a fascinating contemporary play.
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