By Alex Rendon
By Monica McGivern
By Michele Eve Sandberg
By Alex Rendon
By Monica McGivern
By Ian Witlen
By Christina Mendenhall
By Michele Eve Sandberg
About 30 minutes into the show, people begin to get stiff and shift in their seats. One couple gets up and leaves halfway through. A woman follows. As soon as the performance ends, people race for the door. A couple of women almost sprint. "That was distasteful," I hear someone exclaim. A few other people appear to have cornered the director and are asking for their money back. Outside the theater a mob of senior citizens gather, complaining about the play's language and the poor acting. Pretending to be the male response to Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues, The Penis' Responses is not just bad, it's wrong. It is a hybrid of outdated Catskills humor turned raunchy, Love, American Style lechery and flagrant misogyny.
The concept of the play is an interesting one. Cowritten by Chicagoans Dr. Dean Dauw and Jane Doe, The Penis' Responses was intended to be a rebuttal to Ensler's acclaimed play. As Dr. Dauw explains, "I saw The Vagina Monologues over a year ago at the Apollo Theater in Chicago, and I walked out of the theater thinking, I can do better than this." Based on interviews in which women talk about sex, The Vagina Monologues has been criticized by some as being anti-male. Collaborating with Jane Doe, a journalist and performance artist he has known for more than 15 years, Dauw set out to even the score and give the penis its say.
Dauw, an ex-Catholic priest turned sex therapist, has been privy to numerous tales of male sexual angst. But alas, knowledge and experience do not always translate to good writing, as is abundantly clear with this production. For all of his exposure to the sexually traumatized and dysfunctional, his monologues are strikingly mediocre. This is not so much due to content as form. The Vagina Monologues deals with many unremarkable situations: women who are insecure about their bodies, infidelity, and so on, but the writing and acting were so well done in the production I saw, they became a concert of enigmatic soliloquies. Penis' Responses claims Dr. Dauw has helped everyone from "altar boys to boys who have been altered." But what he provides his theatrical audience is not a set of monologues or even theater for that matter, just a trail of poorly written anecdotes that are crude to the point of being offensive. The program lists acts with the following sorts of descriptions: "Act II: The Shower. I Kawnt Wate has a virginity problem and needs Dr. Love's sex-pertise," or "Act VIII: Franken-gina. Ima Mann lost his penis and his manhood at circumcision." While these sexual misspellings and the fact that the play has no clearly discernable act or scene change are a bit bothersome, what we see on-stage is even more disturbing.
The main character, Dr. Love (a thinly veiled take on Dauw), has the following to say on male sexuality: A man's wife is in a rest home, comatose, and orderlies notice while giving her a sponge bath that she is responding to touch, so they tell her husband to give her oral sex in hopes it will revive her. When they return he is standing over her bed and crying. The doctors ask, "What happened?" and the man says, "She's dead. She must have choked."
Dr. Love explains to us that God gave man a penis so he could pee quickly and it wouldn't interfere with beer-drinking and sports-watching. Woman didn't get a penis because she had to stay in the cave looking after the young ones.
A growing sense of disbelief descends. Can this really be happening? There's even a Janet Reno joke: Priests were getting so horny listening to confessions that now every confessional is required to have a photo of Janet Reno. Badda boom.
Dr. Love refers to "pussy" as a time-share. Again, can this really be happening? It's no wonder a group of senior citizens and condo-association members threatened to protest the play en masse Friday, June 15. (A half-hour before that evening's show, however, no protestor was in evidence.)
While Dr. Love sits in his doctor's chair pontificating, Queen Bee stomps around and looks huffy. Our Queen is dressed in glittery green tights and a black mini skirt and has wings attached to her arms, which she whips around maniacally, depicting a sort of light S&M package. But what is her role? Why is she dressed up as a bee? Looking to the program for answers, I find the following: "Jane Doe is Queen Bee. She incubated her larvae for many years.... Dr. Dauw was the key to unlocking the mysteries of her Queen Beeness through his self-esteem and affirmative life approach. He nurtured Queen Bee from larvae to Queenie and continues to nourish her Queen Bee-ey needs such as providing her with the opportunity to participate in Penis' Responses to the Vagina Monologues."
Dauw explains that one of his goals was to give roles to both men and women. Nice idea, but Queen Bee is not a developed female part. She is basically a straight man for Dr. Love's raunchy jokes. Every few minutes she squares her shoulders, crosses her arms over her chest like a Camille Paglia superhero, and says things such as "Men are pigs" or "Alimony and matrimony -- have you ever noticed they both end with money?"
Women can be relieved to know that Queen Bee is not their only representative. Add to that a model in a swimsuit (Jillian Niccloy), who has a walk-on part that consists of holding one of various signs printed with a phrase or word like "Circumcision," doing a pivot, and walking off-stage. "Is this a boxing ring or a theater?" I hear an audience member whisper. At one point Dr. Love picks up a huge inflated penis and chases her off the stage; when he returns to the stage, the penis prop is a deflated mass of flesh-color plastic in his hands. For those readers who might be wondering, this is not a parody. Perhaps it's the fatal trinity of naming oneself writer, actor, and producer, but Dauw's valid concept has gone awry and is agonizing to witness.
The play was performed by Dauw and Doe until the good doctor was unexpectedly called back to Chicago for unknown reasons, and actors David Sayh and Lisa Boggio stepped in to fill the parts. Jane Doe explains that Sayh has incorporated some of his own work into Dauw's script, which explains the string of Jewish jokes delivered in the style of Henny Youngman or Milton Berle. Instead of "Take my wife, please," we get one-liners like, "You know how hard it is to find a Jew who is good with his hands." Despite having their eyes glued to teleprompters much of the time, Sayh and Boggio still manage to lose themselves completely in long pauses and awkward silences, at which times Sayh jumps in with a joke.
The disturbing thing about The Penis' Responses to the Vagina Monologues is not that it's a combination of bad theater and poor acting. It's that thinking adults, both men and women, believed this display of sexism and bad taste actually possesses enough sociocultural, artistic, or political merit to put it on-stage for other adults to witness. If it were even remotely believable, its underlying misogyny and insensitivity toward both sexes would be deplorable. Instead one can only take a couple of Tylenol and recognize our First Amendment rights. Not tonight, Dr. Dauw. I really have a headache.