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Erotic Thriller 'Songs of Bilitis' Is A Dull Disappointment

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Rogue Artists Ensemble has been a unique company for some time now, using theatre tools and multimedia in impressive ways that have set them apart as an intriguing presence in L.A. theatre. Their shows The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch and Gogol Project were phantasmagorical events, while the more recent D Is For Dog toned down the razzmatazz and touched the heart. So when I read that they were doing a show based on an erotic novel, Songs of Bilitis, I was curious to see what RAE would come up with. Unfortunately, it's a well-intentioned disappointment.

In the late 19th century, Pierre (Christopher Rivas) has temporarily shacked up with his prostitute muse Meriem (Estela Garcia) to enjoy drink, drugs and general debauchery. Unexpectedly he becomes inspired to write, and finds himself describing the life of an imaginary girl from ancient Greece, Bilitis (Aryiel Hartman). As he chronicles the ups and downs of her love life, how she proceeds from an innocent to a debased prostitute, she begins to talk to him, trying to influence her story.

Hartman creates a great deal of understanding and sympathy for her character and is physically graceful in her movements, and she makes a terrific lead. Rivas and Garcia also do their best, but the writing for their characters is unconvincing and stilted, which gets in their way. As written, Pierre seems to spend most of his time crazed with the agony of creating, which is a pretty one-note characterization, but it would be more tolerable if the thing he was creating seemed worthwhile, which this show never demonstrates. The large ensemble, impressive in many ways, suffer mainly in that the play isn't nearly as compelling or historically informative as it might be.

Director Sean T. Cawelti and his production team deliver lovely theatrical moments and set-pieces, particularly the introduction of shadow puppet nymphs, and Sarah Krainin's literally fly-away-then-fly-back-again set is ingenious. But Katie Polebaum's adaptation (also credited to RAE) focuses on the softcore noodlings of Bilitis' story to its detriment, for there seems to be not much literary merit in that source material. The actual story of how Pierre pretended the book was a historical relic and perpetrated a hoax is barely touched upon, and the characters, with the exception of Bilitis, are one-dimensional. This show feels like it focused too much on the surface of the material—and that's full of big puppets and video backgrounds and nifty showmanship—and neglected to explore why these "songs" ever needed to be sung in the first place.

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Songs of Bilitis plays at the Bootleg Theater through March 30. Tickets are available online.