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Grasses of a Thousand Colors

Wallace Shawn’s new play at the Public Theater is explicit. Really, really explicit. logo
Wallace Shawn in Grasses of a Thousand Colors.
(© Joan Marcus)

After spending three hours and twenty minutes watching Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Wallace Shawn's largely incomprehensible new play at The Public Theater, the only thing I've gleaned is an intimate knowledge of what his penis looks like. Well, it's not his penis, really; this sexual organ, with "no eyes, no nose, just a simple mouth, permanently fixed in a sort of sad, wistful smile," belongs to Ben, Shawn's onstage alter ego, a scientist whose major discovery has basically destroyed the world.

And to think, that discovery was actually intended to save the world. Or was it? Very little is certain in this universe, where literally everyone is vomiting to death because of what Ben did. In noticing that there wasn't enough food on the planet, but far too many entities that could be turned into food, Ben created Grain Number 1, a substance that would enable animals to feed off one another instead of plants. Not only does it wipe out all species of animals, but it spells the end of humankind.

On a cozy, shockingly white set designed by Eugene Lee, even more shockingly lit in various neon hues by Howard Harrison, Ben, dressed in a black bathrobe and cravat, has set out to read us his memoirs, but ends up concentrating more and more on his experiences spending time with his "best friend." Despite the presence of three beautiful seductresses — his wife, Cerise (Julie Hagerty, ethereal), his second wife, Robin (Jennifer Tilly, loud and lusty), and his girlfriend, Rose (Emily Cass McDonnell, quietly sexy) — Ben would rather play with his penis. Or at least that white cat he fooled around with all those times. Wait. What?

If the first act of this bleak, narcissistic comedy is focused on Ben's member, much of the second is devoted to a frank recollection of Ben's experiences fornicating with a white cat. Despite the trance-like way in which he describes this, it's not a metaphor. He actually does have his testicles fondled, and is repeatedly brought to orgasm, by this four-legged feline, eventually called Blanche. (Blanche's true identity is revealed at the very end in even trippier fashion, via videos designed by Bill Morrison. You're likely to figure it out sooner if you pay close attention to Dona Granata's costume design.)

If unambiguous talk of bestiality or genitalia isn't your thing (and that's a-okay), Grasses of a Thousand Colors probably isn't the theatrical evening for you. If the prospect of the diminutive, lisping Shawn waxing poetic as he delivers lines like "My relationship with my dick was not just a friendship…It was actually a love affair — an affair so intense that there was hardly room for anyone else," gives you titters, you might just find the play to be your speed.

What Shawn and director André Gregory are trying to communicate over the leisurely course of this sometimes hilarious, sometimes arduous, entirely weird piece is unclear. If there was a larger point to be had in the script, it was lost in the perversity of Ben's experiences. One thing's for certain: You'll never look at your cat the same way again.


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