Los Angeles Theater Review: SONGS OF BILITIS (Rogue Artists Ensemble at the Bootleg)

by Mia Bonadonna on March 12, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

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FAKE BOOK COMES TO TRUE LIFE

Published in Paris in 1894, The Songs of Bilitis is a book of poems and epitaphs describing the life and loves of an ancient lesbian heroine named Bilitis. With emotional flourish, author Pierre Louÿs biographically describes her simple country upbringing, pinnacles of romantic love and sexual gratification, and eventual fall into tragic apathy as a lonely courtesan to chimerical beasts. Although a fabricated work, Louÿs took great measures to convey authenticity while marketing his book as a translation of original ancient erotic poems supposedly discovered in a Cyprus cave. Sapphic in every sense of the word, The Songs of Bilitis has been celebrated as a compassionate, introspective, and historically unique portrayal of feminism, sexual empowerment, and emotive lesbian awakening. In 1955, Bilitis (at least in name), went on to inspire the Daughters of Bilitis – the first lesbian civil rights organization in the United States.

Mia Bonadonna's Stage and Cinema review of Rogue Artists Ensemble's SONGS OF BILITIS at the Bootleg in LA

Now, Katie Polebaum’s sensuous stage adaptation of Louÿs’ poetic work of counterfeit ancient erotica arrives at the Bootleg Theater via a short run at South Coast Rep. Under the helm of Rogue Artists Ensemble, Songs of Bilitis brings both Louÿs and his fictional Bilitis to life by imagining the titillating compositional context that birthed the original prose poems. Replete with shadowed imagery and spectral puppetry bound up in the spirited trappings of primal Greek theatre, Songs of Bilitis is a beautiful portrayal of the complexities of love, lust and creative pursuit.

Mia Bonadonna's Stage and Cinema review of Rogue Artists Ensemble's SONGS OF BILITIS at the Bootleg in LA

Through tender cadence and consuming warmth, the entire cast is thoroughly spellbinding, led by Aryiel Hartman and Christopher Rivas, who offer a complimentary dichotomy of narrative progression. As the titular character, Hartman brings a complex distillation of calculated abandon that is carnal and knowing. Rivas staunchly plays a tortured Louÿs with captivating quixotic pluck bowed by an undercurrent of uncertain hedonism. In the supporting role of Meriem, Louÿs’ Algerian muse, Estela Garcia captures the essence of earthy, robust femininity. These key characters are boldly flanked with an utterly fascinating and skillful Greek chorus (Christina Aimerito, Angela Brockunier, Stephen Elrod, Heidi Hilliker, Zach Kanner, and Steve Madar).

Mia Bonadonna's Stage and Cinema review of Rogue Artists Ensemble's SONGS OF BILITIS at the Bootleg in LA

Director Sean T. Cawelti’s sensuous orchestration of Songs of Bilitis is tasteful, fluid, exciting, and refreshingly respectful of the raw female form – a rarity among this year’s Los Angeles theater offerings. Polebaum’s adaptation is a smart curation of the iconic book. She has crafted a loving homage that is easy to savor as a testament to the struggle and indulgences of many nameless lesbian foremothers lost to time. Aided by a large behind-the-scenes team, the aesthetics of this Rogue Artists production does not disappoint. Gracefully interpreted antiquity is gorgeously buttered with modern injections of subtlety and style.

Mia Bonadonna's Stage and Cinema review of Rogue Artists Ensemble's SONGS OF BILITIS at the Bootleg in LA

photos courtesy of Rogue Artists Ensemble

Songs of Bilitis
Rogue Artists Ensemble
Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd.
scheduled to end on March 30, 2013
EXTENDED to April 6, 2013
for tickets, call 213-389-3856 or visit http://www.bootlegtheater.org

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