Washington Ensemble Theatre has a reputation for producing innovative, challenging, provocative and thoroughly contemporary new plays. "99 Ways to F**k a Swan" by Kim Rosenstock certainly fits into all those categories. The problem is that it is also quite an unfocused mess, using its historical, erotic and psychological themes to deliver a confusing, unsatisfying journey through the inner and outer lives of recognizable characters who really have no distinctive message to deliver. This production, directed by Ali Mohamed El-Gasseir, is quite well performed and, although it is too long, pretty compelling throughout. It just doesn't make the journey worth the effort.
As the central character, Dave, Ryan Higgins delivers his usual finished and clear performance. Dave is a student in a class taught by Fiona (Jonelle Jordan) and he becomes obsessed with writing a paper about the history of Leda and the Swan. That leads us on a journey that will take us from Greece to Italy to England, from Francesco (Alex Garnett) and his beloved Leda (Leah Salcido Pfenning) to Michelangelo (Devin Bannon) and all his associates, the exotic Lucrezia (Kamaria Hallums-Harris) and a host of other characters portrayed by the students in Dave's class.
I supposed this play is about finding authenticity in one's sexual identity, but that is so compromised in so many ways that it is really quite confusing and, ultimately, unsatisfying. There is a ton of eroticism in this production including nudity, sexually explicit relationships and a vast array of people seeking and using one another to no great satisfaction. Perhaps the real message of this play is that no one really ever knows exactly who they are sexually. Certainly none of these people. Each of the characters display a wide range of sexual kinks, including bestiality (Dave has a “problem” with a cat he’s attracted to) murder, masochism, attraction and frustration and a most distressing attraction to little girls. In Dave's attempts to create a relationship with Fiona we are delivered to complete confusion, both within the characters and within the audience.
To be clear, this production is quite well done, but the script itself is a totally unfocused meandering through questions and topics about which I don't think the playwright ever found any satisfying conclusions. The production design, by Tommer Peterson, was all right, but the mounds of scrap paper reminded me too much of the mounds of scrap paper the playwright must have defiled in the process of writing this piece.
As for the performances, I thought Leah Salcido Pfenning was excellent as Leda, remaining a mystery in just the right ways and just the right proportion. I also really liked Jonelle Jordan as the teacher. Her insecurity was perhaps the most convincing of all the characters. The rest of the cast did well, but not really outstanding work, and I think that was largely a result of the unfinished script. I really wanted to like this show, but about half way through I realized it didn't really have any idea what it wanted to be about. I'm sure many will like this production much more than I did, but I don't think this was a good choice for this talented company, and I think it will leave most audiences as unsatisfied and frustrated as all of the characters in it.
PICTURED ABOVE: Leah Salcido Pfenning as Leda
PHOTO BY: Chris Bennion