The opening scene of Sweet Tooth is mesmerizing: a bare stage, a woman in a fur coat standing in front of a white sheet and singing "It's cold." A hand appears from behind the sheet offering a glass, sprinkling water on the woman, and then the sheet is removed to reveal a rose-colored living room filled with various strange portraits of this same woman. We discover she isn't really cold. She's George, a wealthy eccentric who has retreated from the world like Jean Des Esseintes in Huysman's Against Nature, a quintessential work in the decadent-aesthetic turn-of-the-century tradition (think Oscar Wilde). George has decided to create a hermetically enclosed, aesthetically perfect little universe for herself, one in which artifice is elevated above nature and a simulated event is superior to the event itself. With the help of two devoted followers — Hortense the maid and the artist George calls Mister (because there's no male equivalent to the word "mistress," and she doesn't like "gigolo") — she invents fake interludes to appreciate.
Des Esseintes did much the same. Inspired by reading Dickens, he decided on a visit to London. But having gone to an English restaurant in Paris where he found the clientele repellent ("laymen with broad pork-butcher faces and bulldog muzzles, apoplectic necks, ears like tomatoes, wine-sodden cheeks, bloodshot, foolish eyes"), he decided he didn't actually need to experience the island itself; it was represented sufficiently by the restaurant and a guidebook. George and her people read Dickens, too, though they don't really like his work, and their approach to life is similar.
Pastry being about as artificial as cooking gets, the three eat a lot of desserts, and the result is predictable. George gets a toothache — meaning she has to deal with a very real, pressing and painful reality. A dentist is called in, a practical, low-key guy called Dr. Manette (another Dickens reference), and the group invites him into its shared fantasy life. Will he break through the enameled craziness with his forceps and angled mirror, or move deeper and deeper into the rosy-tinted trap following a trail of poisoned sweets?
Presented by Buntport Theater through November 17, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com.
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There's a lot of wit and ingenuity here, and also guts: When the Buntport Theater actors come up with an original concept, they tend to ride it through to the bitter end, not shying away from the craziest implications, exploring every possible crevice. Which makes Sweet Tooth as intellectually stimulating as it is lively and funny.
The theme goes beyond ideas about art versus reality. George isn't just a solitary aesthete like Des Esseintes. She's a monstrous and destructive narcissist, a controller and manipulator, a deeply sick woman with the power to draw others into the depths of her sickness. She can get Dr. Manette to see a mouth full of inflammation and decay as beautiful, persuade Hortense to sacrifice her very self, and play poor Mister like a sad little puppet. "The dark parts give me trouble," George observes early in the play, and soon enough, those dark parts threaten to swallow the light.
Sweet Tooth is a collaboration with musician Adam Stone, and he provides a series of strange, passionate and funny songs on such topics as abscessed teeth and Pear William cake.
This is a generally dazzling piece of work. But while Hannah Duggan's Hortense is unpretentiously self-effacing and Erik Edborg does a sterling job of portraying an ordinary dentist caught in an extraordinary situation, as George, Erin Rollman comes across like every movie diva you've ever seen in an old film, and Brian Colonna is all fluttering mannerism as Mister. These are both excellent actors — it's Rollman's stillness and gravity that makes the opening scene such a stunner — but rather than playing people who behave artificially, they play the artifice itself, unleashing a horde of tics, shticks and pecadilloes we've seen from them too many times before. It's enough to make your teeth hurt.