Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1991

Uh-oh. They’re boasting about “incestuous relationships” and “unnatural acts.” Sledgehammer Theatre is at it again.

San Diego ‘s shock-loving fringe theater company is caught in another maelstrom.   Just as their various “bad-boy” members are emerging in the theatrical mainstream, they come along and brag about incest with other theater groups, and they produce a play with a title that local newspapers won’t even print.

The play is “7 blowjobs” by the hip, hot, Obie Award-winning playwright Mac Wellman (some may remember his “Albanian Softshoe”, a weird little piece that created somewhat of a furor at the San Diego Rep a few seasons back). The Los Angeles Times gave the new play’s title a mention; the Union and Tribune wouldn’t touch it with a pole of any length.

“The title of the play is the most obscene or controversial part of it,” says Sledgehammer’s executive producer, Ethan Feerst. “And after saying the title day after day, it becomes just a word.   The novelty wears off.”   Wellman certainly didn’t want his title changed or revised. On one of several working visits to San Diego , he said he thinks the title is just right. (And if it had to be modified, what would it be “softened” to: “7 snowjobs”??)

Anyway, it’s a political piece, a world premiere about censorship by conservative forces in America , dedicated to two of the most prominent of those forces:   Sen. Jesse Helms and Rev. Donald Wildmon. It’s ironic, of course, that the title itself would be censored. Feerst has loved the “negative press space” the title has sparked.   “It’s a classic case of censorship,” he chuckles. “People are expending lots of extra energy talking about the thing they can’t name. The funny part is, as if the title isn’t good enough, we also have a good play.”

So much for triple-X ratings.   We still have to deal with the “incest,” which comes in the guise of the close, long-term relationship between Sledgehammer and the San Diego Repertory Theatre.   (Feerst, citing Sledgehammer’s ongoing cooperation with a variety of mainstream theater companies, calls it “incestuous symbiosis”).

Sledgehammer’s artistic director, Scott Feldsher, directs the San Diego Rep’s sixteenth annual production of “A Christmas Carol” (November 30-December 29). The Rep’s artistic director, Douglas Jacobs, is re-writing the adaptation. And Jacobs also plays a role in “7 blowjobs” — Senator Bob, the one who is mysteriously sent the offending titular photographs of “unnatural acts.”

Feldsher was on staff at the Rep from 1985-1988, as literary manager, casting director and associate director.   He and Jacobs have remained friends, and the Rep folks thought Feldsher would be a great one for giving San Diego the Dickens. To Feldsher, who’s looked for sex, violence and misogyny in plays by Sam Shepard, Sam Beckett and Georg Buchner, it’s not much of a stretch at all.

“The epic structure of “Christmas Carol” is very image-oriented and at least formally, very close to what I do,” he says, though we have to hear more before we’re convinced.   “It’s going to be very dream-like, very presentational. It won’t be (as were the Rep’s past two years’ productions) about the homeless, or a high-concept version.” But don’t worry.   “It will be provocative,” Feldsher assures us. “I’m not making Scrooge a transvestite or anything. There isn’t any violence in the story per se.   Although there is the psychological violence in abusing children. And sex?   Well, Scrooge rediscovers his feminine side, realizes he was in love once, sees a certain sexuality in himself.”   Oh boy. The potential for Sledgehammering expands.    But, Feldsher explains, “The provocative elements will be visual, what we do with the imagery and the story.”

He says he hasn’t been reined in at all by the Rep, and Sledgehammer was “allowed to be as creative and take as many liberties as I want.” He’s decided to focus on the children, which he felt to be very important to Dickens.   “The central imagery of the story is ignorance and want,” he says. “In England at the time, the society didn’t realize that raising a lot of children in ignorance and poverty would create a class that would ultimately destroy the society.”

Feldsher will explore the juxtaposition of the “low level music-hall humor” of the piece and its “incredible range of spirituality.” The production will be “very eclectic in terms of visual and performance style, but also very beautiful, with a strong sense of spirituality.” Beautiful?   Sledgehammer??

“As a director,” Feldsher, 27, admits, “I’m going through a bit of transformation.   I started directing for public scrutiny (at UCSD) at age 20. I’ve kind of grown up in front of everyone. I’m more conscious of the spiritualism in my own life now.   Maybe the cynicism has been a little bit tempered.   We can have beauty alongside the garish and ugly. All artists grow and change.”

These two productions seem to represent the old and the new Sledgehammer, but Feldsher sees sharp parallels between “Christmas Carol” and “blowjobs”. “Both are very language-oriented. And very tightly written. There are a lot of structural similarities. Both have biting satire, being alternately funny and hopeful, honest and frightening.” Back on the subject of exasperating an audience, Feldsher turns to “blowjobs”:   “Compared to a lot of other things, it’s not something people will walk out on because of the language.   But maybe because of the satire.”

©1991 Patté Productions Inc.