Review: “Pleasure & Pain”

(Opened Feb. 10, 2007)

Magic whips up some erotica in Bilodeau’s Pleasure & Pain
Three stars More pleasure than pain

Sexual heat is too often absent from the stage, especially when the subject is sex.

Onstage sexiness can get really embarrassing really fast – embarrassing for everyone involved: the actors and the audience. The reason is that we know when something isn’t real, and usually that’s OK. But not when it comes to sex.

That doesn’t mean we want to see real, live sex onstage (there are places for that kind of thing, after all), but it does mean that when actors are pretending to be all hot and bothered, we generally don’t believe them. And, more to the point, we don’t feel the heat ourselves.

Chantal Bilodeau’s Pleasure & Pain, the first of this year’s Hot House trio of world-premiere plays at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, traffics in erotica for much of its 90 minutes, and some of it sizzles.

We are thrust, as it were, straight into the dark, sexy daydreams of office worker Peggy (a game Jennifer Clare, above, in cage). She has written an erotic story about a man in a cage (Andrew Utter) willing to do Peggy’s bidding, and we see the story come to life in the author’s imagination.

Snapped out of her ribald reverie, Peggy resumes her rather ordinary life. She’s an assistant to an assistant in a university dean’s office, and she’s nearly engaged to a seemingly nice guy (Max Moore).

But Peggy has reached a point in her life where something’s not right. Her pleasant life isn’t fulfilling her, and, in her cheerful way, she wants to break through to something all-consuming and satisfying. She says she’s looking for “a piece of infinity where that distance between me and the world might disappear.’’ She wants to lose control and find the missing pieces of herself.

To this end, she smokes her first joint with old friend (and boss) Ruth (Catherine Smitko, below right with Clare), and the two exchange some experimental kisses. She encourages her boyfriend to be more adventurous (like maybe they should have sex on the couch). And then there are the racy stories, which accidentally fall into the hands of the dean (Robert Parsons), who takes an interest in them and in Peggy.

In many ways, Pleasure & Pain is a coming-out story. Rather than the usual “hey, I’m gay!’’ variety, Peggy’s is more of a “hey, I think I dig BDSM (bondage-discipline, sadomasochism)!’’ story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Written with clarity and humor, Bilodeau’s heartfelt tale finds masterful direction from Jessica Heidt, who wastes no time with extraneous details. The focus is trained tightly on Peggy — to the detriment of the other characters, actually — but Clare’s performance is so gutsy and exposed that we don’t care much about anyone else.

A whole lot of Pleasure & Pain is about breaking free of the confines proscribed by our neat and tidy lives. This is beautifully reflected in Matt McAddon’s set, which is bordered by a tall, whitewashed wood fence, and the set pieces are quite literally compartmentalized, with elements of the office and home revealed in the opening of cabinet doors.

Peggy’s road to sexual liberation means risking the stability of her life, but as the intensity of her fantasy life increases, it’s a risk she’s more and more willing to take. Those awkward sex scenes early in the play give way to more intense – much more intense – forays into controlling and being controlled. There’s bondage, blindfolding and the dripping of hot wax on bare skin. Later on there’s even a cat o’ nine tails. Clearly this is not family night at the Magic.

Our fantasies or needs may not be the same as Peggy, but her longing to be more completely herself and to find fulfillment on her own terms is something we can all understand. We can only hope it’s true that, as one of Peggy’s masters tells her, “for every bit of pain, pleasure is multiplied by thousands of times.’’

For information about Pleasure & Pain, visit Photos by Nick Shoob.

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