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More Play Than Porn 

Looking for the love story beneath the kink in The Censor

Wednesday, Aug 2 2006
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Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson's The Censor has the distinction of being the second Last Planet production in a row — after the run, earlier this year, of Farmyard by Franz Xaver Kroetz — to feature a scene in which a woman takes a shit onstage. The trend (if you can call it that) is alarming, but not because of the shock value. More contentious, to my mind, is the notion that one of the city's most audacious theater companies might become known first and foremost as the place to go to watch simulations of bodily functions, and only a distant second as the place to go to have your world turned upside down.

A quiet narrative about love and loss buried beneath a seedy floorshow, The Censor is actually a tender little play; disturbing perhaps, but not shocking. Having earned a reputation in the early-to-mid-1990s as one of the U.K.'s most unflinching dramatists for works like Normal (in which a deranged lawyer mashes a serial killer's wife to pulp with an oversized hammer) and Penetrator (in which a deranged soldier threatens two childhood friends with an oversized knife), Neilson composed The Censor in 1997 as a reaction against popularly held beliefs about his writing. Telling the story of a blue movie director's attempt to persuade a government censor to pass her hard-core porn flick for screening, the drama explores censorship at its most public and private levels. Over a taut, 80-minute denouement, the titular Censor, a self-described "repressed, anally retentive apparatchik," learns a thing or two about the difference between love and sex from porn queen Shirley Fontaine — and, in so doing, unleashes long-suffocated inner desires.

Anyone who can't see the stuff beneath the snuff isn't paying attention. Sure, within the first five minutes, Fontaine has exposed her breasts, stuck her hands down the censor's pants, and sniffed the cocktail of urine and talcum powder on his genitals. References to fellatio and finger-fucking abound, and the drama contains no fewer than 15 utterances of the word "penis." Yet the play, especially as conceived by Last Planet, is much more playful than it is pornographic.

The humor and surrealism of artistic director John Wilkins' Vaseline-slick, intimate production thwart our expectations. The opening scene, in which John Andrew Stillions (as the bespectacled, flummoxed Censor) asks Emma Victoria Glauthier's predatory Miss Fontaine to kindly put her shirt back on, more closely resembles Benjamin Braddock's stumbling exchanges with Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate than Debbie Does Dallas or Deep Throat. At one point the Censor and his estranged, philandering wife (Erin Gilley) run around popping dozens of helium-filled balloons in an expressionistic statement of marital demise. At another, Fontaine struts onstage carrying an enormous vanity case, from which she ostentatiously unfurls — as only a sex maven could — a red blanket and a black velvet pillow. And as with all the potentially scandalous moments in the play, we don't see so much as a hint of flesh or feces. Offending parts remain coyly concealed behind furniture and clothing, only limply echoed through the grainy footage of humping bodies projected intermittently on a floating scrim.

Wilkins' hyperstylized staging serves to emphasize The Censor's message about looking beyond the "scandalous" in a work of art to see the real meaning — in this case, the love story — below. With George Bush waging a purity war against the media (only a few weeks ago, he signed new laws aimed at curbing the amount of "unsuitable material" aired on TV), this production amounts to a topical sendup of the surface-centric prejudices that go hand in hand with most forms of censorship. After all, the sight of flapping genitalia or severed body parts rarely disturbs audiences as much as the power of suggestion — it's the idea of what the razor-flashing Mr. Blonde might do to the defenseless cop in Reservoir Dogs that turns our stomachs, rather than the moment of torture itself.

Yet Neilson's text offers an equally critical view of a world in which pornography and violence reign unfettered. As the Censor puts it, "Without censorship, there'd be no allegory, no metaphor, no restraint — I mean — Brief Encounter is a story about two lovers, but you don't have to see Trevor Howard's penis thrusting in and out of Celia Johnson, do you?" Unfortunately, the company's efforts to engage with this contradiction aren't always successful: For while the beautiful contrivances of Wilkins' mise-en-scene deconstruct the play's pornographic content, the aggressive, one-dimensional acting reasserts it.

Take Glauthier's Fontaine. Like many key members of Last Planet's ensemble, this British-born actor usually possesses great instincts. Glauthier's subdued turn as the mother figure in Farmyard was as subtle as it was poignant, but her performance in The Censor is monosyllabic. Strutting legs akimbo in a tight black-and-red Chinese silk dress, her lower lip thrust forward in a permanent leer, the porn director comes across as being more construction worker in drag than screen siren. All the characters are stereotypes, but Wilkins pushes his actors too far in that direction. If we're going to look beyond the R-rated smokescreen to see the evolving love story, we need to feel emotionally involved. But the lack of sensuality and multidimensionality in the performances makes it hard for us to connect with the play's inner life.

In Aleks Sierz's study about British drama in the 1990s, In-Yer-Face Theatre, Neilson is quoted as saying of The Censor, "I wanted people to come out of the theatre not talking about the fact that they'd seen a woman take a shit onstage." Even though this production's lack of an emotional core draws our attention toward, rather than away from, Wilkins' serial interest in poop, I don't think the company's reputation will come to much harm: Last Planet's audience is intelligent enough to keep its mind over its fecal matter. We'll still turn up in droves to have our worlds turned upside down.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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