Avant Grrrrr

If you're a tiny little theater with a tiny little budget, there is no better play to tackle than Three Angels Dancing on a Needle, by exiled Iranian playwright Assurbanipal Babilla. You need no sets, no props, no costumes. All that's required is a director as perverse as Square Peg Productions' Michael Yawney, three decent actors, and an audience with an appetite for the ugly.

Three Angels is a play awash in ritual. When the actors appear with an egg, a chalice, and a bell, their usage is mysterious. We are told that the egg has special significance: If it breaks, the play will continue; if not, we go home. (The egg does tend to break.)

Before, after, and sometimes during the scenes, the performers array themselves into pagan tableaux and perform little dances, skittering across the background with heads a-bob, like horror-movie marionettes, or else performing elegant maypole dances like dryads, or something from an old Flemish master. A bell is rung, a scene is announced ("Panel One: Barrrr-thelona!"), and the actors proceed to peel off their skins.

Merry Jo Pitassi waves a dirty Mickey Mouse shirt, grunting and squealing with her ass in the air. To see her inhabit the person of the homeless Patricia is almost pornographic, so vast are the dimensions of her self-immolation. There are moments in Needle when Babilla seems less like a playwright than a taxidermist, and Pitassi and her cohorts are both his assistants and subjects, hollowing themselves out in the name of art... or truth. Patricia is accosting a man in an outdoor café, and she wants to sell him this dirty shirt for $10. He smiles, indulgent — you never see him, save as reflected in Pitassi's face — but refuses to buy.

This is nothing; it happens all the time. She expects rejection and knows how to handle it. In a mad gush, she begins vomiting up her autobiography, revealing layer after layer of the personality that God-knows-how-many years of turning tricks and shooting smack has created, giving voice to all the weird superstitions and half-baked ideas that sustain it. Her parents were royalty, she wants you to know, in Poland. In America, Dad died working as a doorman. Mom died a waitress, getting fucked from behind by an 18-year-old Iranian busboy. Pitassi pantomimes this, wild for it, delighted by the memory. She's plainly crazy. She says, "I'm convinced that if an Iranian puts his dick inside you, you die!"

She wants that $10, and she'll do a lot to get it. She tries being a pest. Eyeing her mark's shrimp salad, she begins making high-pitched squealing noises, the way she imagines his little prawns might squeal if they knew they were being speared on a fork. No good. Then she speculates about his penis. She bets it's like his fingers — "slim but long, yes?" It's too much. He waves her away.

It's a lost cause. But he has a beautiful necktie, one with a pretty little boat on it. "Bless the hand of the artist who did it," she says, and leaves.

Then, more ritual. A bell rings. "Second Panel: God's Most Glorious Invention!"

Odell Rivas enters, wearing the necktie with the boat. His nameless character is in lust with a man, and this is his confession. He's desperate, all watery, frightened eyes and keening. Rivas praises tiny, pedestrian details of his would-be lover's body with a depthless poetry that sounds like Ginsberg: "How often, my friend, have I made love to a curve in the shoulder?"

He makes his lust sound blessed, and so he blesses it. With water from a bowl, he offers benedictions. He makes a plea: "You said you didn't mind doing it with boys. Then what in heaven's name prevents you from doing it to the boy in me?" But the object of his affections is unmoved. Rivas turns dark, imagining a rape, drowning himself in his beau's urine-soaked privates. The bowl of water becomes an instrument of Inquisitorial torture — Rivas dunks his head in, again and again.

Ritual, bell. "Third Panel: Brooklyn Bridge!" Miriam Kulick appears as Clara, a widow dancing gaily around her husband's remains. He beat her, she says, but she's not a sympathetic character: You want to beat her too. She's a viper. Called to identify the body, "I danced on my way to the morgue. I danced the way your mother danced at our wedding, moving my hips like a whore, which is what your mother was." Clara reenacts the hip-moving while crowing "Fifty-seven blocks! Fifty-seven blocks!" That's how far she danced.

There is nothing about her that doesn't drip evil. Did her husband make her this way? Was she born this way? It doesn't matter — whatever girlhood innocence once lived here is gone. When she arrives at the morgue, so great is her joy ("To see you dead was something like receiving an Oscar") that she tries to seduce the police officer escorting her. She grabs his dick — yes, dicks again; there are more dicks-per-minute in Three Angels than in any play currently running in the three counties, maybe in the whole world — but he won't do it. He's a professional, and she's a nutcase.

So Clara keeps her celebration private, and it's probably for the best. You get the feeling that what she wants from the security guard, more than anything else, is a beating as severe as the ones administered by her lately deceased husband. It's been so long since she's known anything from the opposite sex but pain and loathing that she can no longer fathom anything more. She's thrown out everything of her husband's, save this beautiful tie with a boat on it, and her renunciation of the world is absolute. Her daughters, she says, will be her revenge: Turning into women, they are fast approaching the day when they will ruin the lives of their husbands. With these black thoughts, Clara departs.

Then there are more pagan tableaux — fairies? sylphs? — and then a curtain call, and then another. The audience claps loud and long, a lot of volume for this small crowd, and when it's done, people remain in their seats, wondering if the show's over. It is, though ending here seems arbitrary. If Square Peg or Assurbanipal Babilla wanted the drama to continue, to travel further into the gleeful self-mortification that serves as both Needle's goal and muse, you know they could find another egg to break. The world's full of them.

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Brandon K. Thorp