The 6th@Penn Theatre website touts the venue's Mapplethorpe: The Opening with a weird little bit of PR. It shows a postcard apparently sent out as a publicity device-the item wound up back at the Penn in an envelope, and it bears a stern and crusty admonition.
"Boo!" it scolds. "Most of us-gay or not-did not and do not call his work art!" (The italics are mine, in reflection of the writer's emphases.)
If the author of that postcard hasn't seen the show, which runs through Feb. 23, he or she is obviously entitled to every good wish amid a marketplace rife with subjectivity. The downside is that that person will miss a chance to see a pretty darn good performance, one that aptly reflects a modern flap over art as free speech and roundly sustains the theater's role as a public service.
The entry is the product of late director John Stix and writer-actor Brian Quirk, who here plays 41 characters (some ignominious, some infamous) as they attend the opening of Robert Mapplethorpe's first sex-photography show. The year is 1976, when the novelty of Mapplethorpe's explicitness brings him quick notoriety-the place is New York, which may account for his equally rapid critical acclaim.
The characters weigh in with candor and breadth. While one sheepishly admires the artist's go-for-broke enthusiasm, another claims in incredulity that Mapplethorpe once asked to capture him in the act of consuming excreta. Quirk wisely pulls back as he defines the group's physical spectrum-at its core, this script is a statement on the Mapplethorpe controversy, and the actor's restraint aids his role as the central commentator.
Mapplethorpe accelerated his output in S&M-related works and homoerotic studies through the rest of the '70s and most of the '80s. His detractors succeeded in dogging him into the legal arena; their action invites comparison with the fortunes of another American icon.
Comedian Lenny Bruce was busted on obscenity raps twice in the early 1960s for using the words "cocksucker" and "motherfucker" in his shows; he was found not guilty both times. His initial arrest resulted in a landmark case in the preservation of the First Amendment. That finding may have weighed into the defense of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, which police raided in 1990 during a Mapplethorpe show that included a series of explicitly sadomasochistic portraits. The center and its director were acquitted of pandering.
Both men are in no position to offer personal defenses. Lenny died in 1966 at age 40 of a morphine overdose; Robert was 42 when AIDS complications took him in 1989 (he claimed he had had sex with 75 percent of his male subjects). But the less said, the better-the point is that at least on paper, public art is a bastion of free speech in the United States, and Robert Mapplethorpe looms large amid its legal protections.
Congratulations are in order to producer Dale Morris and to the event's sponsor, UCSD theater professor Marianne McDonald, for conceiving this event. It's a smart show by a very smart actor; even better, it's a poignant reminder of stagecraft's eminent position as a facilitator of the national debate.
For those who take their gay-oriented fare lightly seasoned, there's Diversionary Theatre's Wrinkles (through Feb. 19, 619-220-0097). Three generations of Kentucky women (Sally Stockton, Terri Park and Lisel Gorell-Getz) air their dirty laundry in a good coming-of-age piece by Rebecca Basham. The second act bogs down in rhetoric, but director Rosina Reynolds takes advantage of the otherwise lively dialogue. And Gorell-Getz's eyes will send you over the moon.
Mapplethorpe tickets are available at 619-688-9210.