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Elle

By New York City
Her Holiness:Alan Cumming stars as the Pope in Genet's Elle(Photo:  Francis Hills)
Her Holiness:
Alan Cumming stars as the Pope in Genet's Elle
(Photo: Francis Hills)
Alan Cumming as Pope? In the Art Party's production of Jean Genet's Elle, Cumming is dressed in a beautiful mockery of a Pope's robes. The actor's shoulders, arms, and a certain other part of his anatomy are left bare, giving the impression more of a perverse evening gown than the vestments of a man of God. The costume evokes a sense of contradiction and mistaken identity - themes that lie at the heart of Genet's play, which makes its English language premiere in this adaptation by Cumming.

The sartorial ensemble is the creation of the innovative designer Vivienne Westwood. Her designs for the rest of the cast are not quite as outlandish, but remain stylish, sexy, and more than a little irreverent. For example, Stephen Spinella, as the Usher, wears a maroon and black cassock (resembling a frock, tightly fitted to accentuate his body in a flattering manner), whereas Chad L. Coleman, as the Cardinal, is dressed in a floor-length gown that emphasizes the feminine qualities of religious robes.

The play's title was originally Sainteté, which means "holiness" in French, and is a feminine noun. "Elle," of course, means "she." At the beginning of the play, a photographer (Anson Mount) waits with Spinella's Usher for the arrival of an unnamed "she." There's a bit of gender confusion within the dialogue itself, as at times it seems to indicate that the person being talked about is a man and at other times, a woman. Eventually, we come to realize that the photographer and usher are talking about the Pope.

When he finally arrives, however, he is not what he should appear to be. That is, he doesn't act much like a Pope. He defecates into a chamber pot, talks crassly, and engages in other inappropriate actions. Cumming is excellent in the role, endowing it with a manic grandeur that electrifies the stage.

In many of Genet's works, the author questions the nature of what we refer to as reality. Role-playing games dominate his plays such as The Maids and The Balcony. In his autobiographical memoir, The Thief's Journal, he talks about how it seems he is defined only through his relationships to his friends: "I exist only through them, who are nothing, existing only through me."

Elle works with similar themes. The Pope bemoans the fact that the image people have of the Pope is not, in fact, his reality. The burden of this representation weighs heavily on him, so much so that he has come to the conclusion that "the only thing left was to destroy the image by refusing to perpetuate it."

He makes his case to the befuddled photographer and is alternately assisted and hindered by Spinella's character, who seems much more than an usher. Spinella also delivers a stand-out performance, commanding the stage when he needs to, and disappearing into the background when required.

Nick Philippou directs this production as the inaugural effort of the Art Party, a new company dedicated to short runs of contemporary work free from the commercial constraints of the theater industry. The company is able to attract top talent such as Tony Award winners Cumming (who is a co-founder of the group) and Spinella. Unfortunately, this also means that the shows won't run long enough to be seen by a lot of people, which is a shame. Although Elle may not be one of Genet's best plays, this production breathes new life into a neglected and nearly forgotten work by one of last century's best writers.


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