Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jerker – Written by Robert Chesley

By Joe Straw

The journey to theatre can take one into unchartered territories, real or imagined.  Either way it’s a journey worth taking.  

Space 916 is a theatre to which I have not had the pleasure.  Off-the-beaten path, it is in the middle of Hollywood but hidden south of Santa Monica Boulevard.  There is no sign from the street and the space is slightly tucked away off Formosa. 

It is dark. There is very little street lighting or it just seemed dark.  I wasn’t sure I was in the right place and there is this “thing” in the back of my mind saying: “Provocative theatre has this setting. Provocative theatre is like this. ”

The night was colder than usual after a day of rain.  

As I pull into the parking lot, there is a man with tattoos, outside, smoking a cigarette wearing unbuttoned cut off jeans, a jock strap underneath, and slightly exposing his backside as I drive by to park. It is cold, freezing cold! Fifty-five degrees Southern California cold!  And yet he’s out there, wearing no shirt, bouncing up and down and smoking a cigarette.

This must be the place.

I park on the other side of the building, still not sure if I’m in the right place.  A quick call to Jason, I am. And as I walk inside the theatre, there’s a delightful young Asian woman in a completely unexpected sterile box office setting. She is courteous but tells me that I am in the wrong theatre.  “Jerker is next door.”  She politely says with a smile.  

I walk next door.  The door is locked but opens slightly as someone slips around and tapes a sign on the door, which in bold letters says, “Jerker”. “We’ll be opening the doors in about 15 minutes.”  Slam! It’s cold.  Nowhere to go but next door to the other lobby and sit in the warmth.

Jason Moyer presents the 25th Anniversary Production of Jerker written by Robert Chesley, directed by Glenn Kessler, and produced by Jason Moyer at Space 916, through November 20th, at 916 Formosa Avenue in Hollywood.  

The first thing one notices, when entering the Space 916, are the underwear-clad men sitting on couches, reading.  Too dark to see what they are reading they look up, give you a blank stare, and turn back to their book. Can they actually read in this light?   

Space 916 is a nice space.  It is very spacious, plenty of seats and a very wide staging area. 

As far as the set is concerned there is no Set Designer listed in the credits.  A bed and some furniture are at far stage right and another apartment setup is at far stage left.  The apartments are great distances from each other.  (More on this later.)

Briefly, the story is about the lives of two men Bert (Gregory Allen) and JR (Glenn Kessler) who enjoy having phone sex in the beautiful setting of 1980’s San Francisco, California.    The title of the play is actually Jerker or the Helping Hand:  A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of them Dirty.  

JR (not his real name) has gotten Bert’s phone number.  It’s on a scratch sheet of paper, sitting on his bedside table, and it has been lying there for a while.  Fondling himself isn’t cutting it anymore and he is eager to call the number.  He knows what he likes in Bert. There was an attraction.  Why can’t he get himself to call?  Would Bert reciprocate in the games JR wants to play?

Still, there it lays, the number, the first jump into a fantasy that could go completely wrong. JR needs something.  It is a desire for human contact, sex, phone sex, and then to fall into a state of kef and slumber.  Excitedly, he punches the phone number.

JR calls Bert but there’s a slight problem, Bert doesn’t want to jump in and play.  In fact he is very matter of fact and very business like. Has JR done something wrong? No, Bert wants a little build up, which he eventually gets. JR gets what he needs, hangs up the phone, and goes to sleep.

The conversation continues on another day but this time Bert wants to play his own game which really turns JR on.  It is the big brother and little brother game, and this seems to be JR’s favorite.  In fact as the play continues he calls Bert, Big Brother as a term of affection.   

Through the various phone calls, they play out their fantasies which include the other members of the cast: Corey Adam, Gregory Barnett, Ben Cuevas, Parnell D. Marcano and Sammy Murriam playing various roles in various sexual situations.

There are a few things we learn through their conversations.  We learn JR is a veteran of some branch of the military and is now a historian.  Bert is a businessman, a three-piece suit type. After sex we get a glimpse of their lives and their relationship grows after numerous tête-à-têtes.

But why is their relationship just phone sex?  Why are they stuck in their rooms?

There is a problem.  Bert is very emotional at times and there is something wrong with his demeanor.  JR tries to find out but is rebuked.

The two men can never come together.  They cannot approach each other.  JR sees Bert on occasion but wants to keep this relationship anonymous. Besides at this point in Bert’s life, the phone sex seems to be enough for him.  And there is a reason that Bert does not pursue JR that remains a mystery until the final conclusion. 

The phone conversations continue until JR can no longer reach Bert.

Glenn Kessler as JR is not shy about anything. This is a demanding role and requires complete nudity and a lot of masturbation.  Still, as the character, there is a lot of work to be done.  For instance, there are crutches in the room.  He uses them once. One supposes it is a character trait and is a reason that keeps him anchored in his apartment.  One believes it is critical to see this the moment he steps onto the stage.  His first movement gives the audience a reason for him being there and not going out.  It affirms the character and makes the story come to life. Also, he tells Bert that he is a historian but aside from the typewriter, there is nothing in his character that suggests he is working in, on or around his profession.  Still, some good work, but Kessler needs a little more focus on his objective and character first and then worry about the erections later.

Gregory Allen as Bert did a fine job. Allen connected to his counterpart in a number of ways, through the phone, and (eh hem) other ways.  But, in order for him to help JR, and despite his illness, he needs to play the game, better, longer, faster, and with a fanatical fantasy desire.   Still, this was a very demanding role and a very nice job.

Corey Adam Affron and Sammy Murrian were two of the younger men in the ensemble.  They played out the fantasies of the older men who on the phone in conversation.

Gregory Barnett and Ben Cuevas played a brutal scene in the forest, a kind of master-slave-bondage fantasy. It was very brutal and hard to watch at times.

Parnell D. Marcano has a very nice singing voice and was very sympathetic as the friend dying of AIDS.  Marcano is no stranger to the stage and was very capable in a demanding role.

This play presents interesting acting challenges.  The concentration requires the actor to be “spot on” and in the moment.  He must be focused on the relationship.  And then (on top of all things) he is required to have an erection (simulated or not) and orgasm (simulated or not). And after each phone call the actor must move the relationship forward. 

The physical challenges, over an hour and a half, and twenty phone conversation requires youth and to a large degree, a stamina of sorts.

One would like to speak to the technical difficulties of the performance.  The phone conversations were sent through a speaker system and had a very nice effect.  But, upon closer inspection, the conversation did not match the movements on stage, facial and vocal.  Crying seems to be coming from the speakers when there was no crying on stage and visa versa. So there was pantomime going on.  And when the speakers were turned off there was some acting going on.  This was a little disconcerting but not too terribly bad.

I’m not convinced the director, Glenn Kessler, can also be in his own production. There is too much to do when focusing on a character.  Too much is at stake when a person is trying to do two jobs at once. Moments need to be carefully scrutinized and made precise. The characters have objectives that need to be played out.  We, as audience members need to see the relationship change during the course of the play.  Also, we need to feel that JR has lost a very important person in his life and this loss has a dramatic effect on him. 

Secondly, the actors were so far apart; it was like watching a Ping-Pong match. Back and forth most of the night long. My suggestion would be to move the beds right next to each other center stage, headboard to headboard, or side to side. This would focus the concentration center stage where the entire phone interaction would take place.  (And yes, there was a lot of action going on.)

Robert Chesley died from AIDS in 1990 at the young age of forty-seven.

There is a lot of nudity in this play, full frontal, full backtal, sidle, and dimensional.  If that is to your liking come.  And please bring someone you know that will enjoy theatre like you’ve never seen. 

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