KPBS AIRDATE: June 22, 1994
A Playboy photo of a man and woman exchanging clothing caught the eye of New York playwright Erin Cressida Wilson. She thought it was a metaphor for love, the ultimate merging with another person. And so she called her 1992 coming-of-age play, “Cross-Dressing in the Depression.”
In a highly sexually-charged co-production of the piece, brought to us by Theatre E and Sledgehammer Theatre, director Lisa Portes makes vivid use of both the literal and metaphorical meanings of “cross-dressing.” The time-shifting memory play is narrated by Old Wilder, brilliantly portrayed by Linda Castro, with a mane of grey hair, a gravelly voice, a suit-coat and a magnificent set of male mannerisms.
As he looks back on the Denver days of Young Wilder, he recalls his deflowering by the prostitute Melora, a sensuous woman-child with whom he melds completely for a brief but unforgettable time. He gives her a cocoon. They talk to each other through the ceiling/floor in ditditdot Morse. When the moth wetly, mustily breaks out of the cocoon, they run away together. But the Great Depression is in full swing. They’re cold and hungry and poor. They can only live off “butterflies and flowers” for so long, before they resort to eating gum off the sidewalk, cigarettes off the street, and wallpaper off the walls of other people’s houses. Before long, they have “sold and eaten all of each others’ memories, pawned each others’ inside and out.” Wilder holds onto his fantasy Melora, but he can’t hold onto the real thing.
Sixty years later, Old Wilder looks back with bitter-sweet nostalgia. The beautiful mother whose freckles “drip[ped] down her fingertips.” The father who winds up in jail, his wife resorting to prostitution and abandoning her son in a brothel. Young Wilder the hope-filled fantasist. Old Wilder the desolate, one-eyed veteran. Young Melora the lusty. Old Melora the lusty. The aging couple, still able to see into each other’s souls, though at the end they do it less abstractly, as Melora unabashedly inserts his glass eye into her body.
In her lyrical, voluptuous writing, Wilson serves up a beautifully melancholic story of love, lust, enmeshment and disillusionment in impossible times. Lisa Portes, an amazingly inventive director, has brought Wilson’s musky prose to erotic life. She has an impeccable sense of pacing and rhythm, infusing all her work with a sinewy, tough-and-tender muscularity: clean, clear, focused and fleshy.
Linda Castro is her priceless centerpiece, giving an impeccable performance: delicately nuanced, brazenly masculine, incredibly believable. The other two actors are not as thrilling, but there are moments of considerable magic on this stage. As Young Wilder, Damen Scranton is often manic, but also endearingly wide-eyed and ingenuous. Andrea Renee Portes can be very cool or very hot, but she doesn’t quite command the stage. We miss Castro when she’s not there, shuffling through the sawdust, posing in the dark, film-noir-style, with a dangling cigarette, or sitting on the edge of the large iron bed center-stage, where, quite aptly, most of the action takes place. The dreamy character of the play is enhanced by Pierre Clavel’s lighting and Michael Roth’s music.
The gender-merge theme is underscored by the unlikely collaboration of the decidedly feminist Theatre E and the often misogynist Sledgehammer. This “Cross-Dressing” experiment looks good on everybody.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.