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Theatre in Review: Underneath the Skin (La MaMa)

John Kelly. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

Throughout his adult life, Samuel Steward (1909 - 93) kept by his bedside a reliquary containing a tiny cutting from Rudolph Valentino's pubic hair. That this is not the most outré detail about him tells you plenty about this litterateur turned sexual adventurer. Steward -- aka Michael Withers, Philip Sparrow, and Phil Andros -- carved out many careers, among them tattoo artist, pornographer, and friend and sometime lover of many literary boldface names. Among his sexual partners were Lord Alfred Douglas and Thornton Wilder. (Well, the jury is out on the last one, as per Wilder's biographer Penelope Niven, but we'll grant it for argument's sake. Lord Alfred apparently wasn't much fun, but he at least provided Steward with a tangible connection to Oscar Wilde.) These encounters, and thousands more with hundreds of men, were detailed on index cards in his "stud file," which caught the interest of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. And many people can you name who were both intimates of Gertrude Stein and inductees in the Leather Hall of Fame?

Performance artist John Kelly has fashioned these startling materials into Underneath the Skin; subtitled "A Penetrative Portrayal of a Queer Giant," it celebrates Steward's life as an erotic outlaw at a time when homosexuality was a strictly taboo topic. Kelly quotes from "The Homosexual's Adjustment," an essay Steward (as Withers) wrote in his mid-twenties, saying, "If I discover that I cannot have both love and a career and choose in favor of the career, I shall have the satisfaction of knowing I have chosen the path of virtue and righteousness -- perhaps in time I shall become a Grand Old Man." Such hand-wringing was hardly necessary: By this time, he had bagged Valentino in a Columbus, Ohio hotel room and had embarked on a career that would keep that stud file active for decades. Still, the cognitive dissonance of teaching at the Catholic institution Loyola University while cruising on the downlow had its effect: He became an alcoholic, a failed novelist, and, during World War II, was discharged from the Navy due to crippling food allergies.

If, by his mid-to-late thirties, his life seemed unsustainable, he took drastic action, getting off the bottle, taking the name Philip Sparrow, and throwing over academe for a career as a tattooist on Chicago's South State Street, where he serviced young sailors in more ways than one. Underneath the Skin, which takes its title from this part of Steward's life, has some provocative things to say about the erotics of inking, which involves penetration between active and passive partners. Later, when legal restrictions threatened to kill off his business, he moved to Oakland, where he earned the dubious title of "official tattoo artist for the Hell's Angels," a position that carried the constant threat of physical violence. Driven by a sense of self-preservation, he gave it up, pivoting to writing the Phil Andros novels, the titles of which -- Stud, Shuttlecock, Greek Ways -- give you an idea of the subject matter; today, they are considered classics of their genre. (Any of them can be found on the Internet, selling at a considerable markup.) Although Kelly barely alludes to it, Steward also developed his own personal Gertrude Stein cottage industry, publishing memoirs and letters in addition to a brief series of murder mysteries featuring the sleuthing of Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Thanks to these and other details, there's never a dull moment in Underneath the Skin. Still, the production -- directed, choreographed, and partly designed by Kelly -- has its odd moments. He appears as Steward, supported by performers Hucklefaery, Estado Flotante, and John William Watkins, who impersonate figures ranging from Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde to various anonymous cruisers. But the onstage action, orgies included, are, to a surprising degree, eclipsed by Kelly's attention-getting video design, a stunning parade of often sexually explicit images of gay life down through several decades, along with newly made sequences featuring the great Lola Pashalinski as Stein. Similarly, much of the narration is delivered not live but via voiceover. With all this technology, a piece about the pursuit of physical pleasure acquires a rather disembodied quality.

At the performance I attended, the production hadn't quite gelled yet, thanks to some cuing flubs, one of which caused Kelly to briefly call for a pause. (The next cue instantly happened, and the show progressed without incident.) Also, Kelly's performance had a slightly tentative quality, suggesting that he was still finding his way into the character. As I write, all of this may have been cleared up. Among other design credits, Ramona Ponce costumes cover a range of eras, from Whitman and Wilde's extravagant hats to the tight jeans and leather jackets of the early post-Stonewall years. Nicholas Houfek's lighting, while expert at isolating performers in the vast Ellen Stewart Theatre space, could be a tad brighter at times.

In any case, Underneath the Skin is especially poignant in its account of Steward's final years when, his youth and looks gone, he found himself alone, bedeviled with strong feelings for a man of another generation. (He shied away from the word "love," preferring "limerence.") Kelly, an insinuating vocalist, caps the evening with his touching take on "The Kiss" by the late singer-songwriter Judee Sill. Any way you look at it, it's quite a story and Kelly does a fine job of placing Steward's life against the rapidly transforming landscape of twentieth-century gay history. Even if you've read Justin Spring's biography of Steward, he remains fascinating; for the uninitiated, particularly young audience members with little or no personal experience of the closet, it should be a real eye-opener. Underneath the Skin is the compelling account of a life lived on its own terms, no matter how the outside world chose to define it. --David Barbour


(5 December 2022)

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