“I don’t think it’s possible to be in love with two people. I think you can love two people – but being in love is a one-on-one personal feeling.”
– Cheryl Ladd, “Cheryl Ladd satisfied with ‘Crossings’”, The Reading Eagle (February 23, 1986)
As the show begins, playwright/performer Kate Robards wants the audience to be very clear on one thing. “Before I start,” she says with a native Texan drawl, “I should probably tell y’all: No.” This is her insistence that the story she’s about to tell – a memoir of her open marriage to her rich (now ex-)husband – is not an invitation for a tryst with anyone in the audience.
Unfortunately, it’s something she had to remind the audience more than once, as she was occasionally cat-called during the show. Maybe the guy took the pre-show playlist (Rihanna’s “Sex with Me” and “Love on the Brain”, Ruth Etting’s rendition of “All of Me”, Ke$ha’s “Woman”) too literally? I recalled Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, in which the author recalls being thought of as untouchable when she was married, but once she got divorced, every sleazy dude (and a few “respectable” ones) considered her fair game. This is what institutional sexism looks like.
Mind you, sex plays a very important part in PolySHAMory, the story of a former youth minister-turned-primary-partner in an open marriage. Sex is important, but it isn’t always enjoyable. I also found myself think of that oft-used quote falsely attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Everything is about sex. Except sex – sex is about power.” Notice how love doesn’t seem to factor in.
Robards’ recounts early on how her idea of love was shaped by watching Titanic and lamenting over lost love, whereas her mother saw a lost opportunity to marry a rich sugar-daddy. Kate eventually finds one in the form of Josh, a rich heir who seems more than a little obsessed with the fact that Kate’s last boyfriend was well-endowed. A whirlwind courtship leads to a “fairytale dream wedding”, followed by Josh starting a company on the East coast as Kate lives as a rich grad student here in SF.
It’s in those studies where she discovers Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt’s The Ethical Slut, which opens her mind beyond the possibilities of traditional monogamy. Her husband sees her copy and thinks it’s an invitation to fuck around. Thus begins Kate’s journey from being open to the idea of sharing love (and sex) with more than one person, to painfully realizing that she’s just her rich husband’s latest acquisition.
I’ve ne)ver properly met Kate Robards, but I understand we have no more than two degrees of separation. I’ve worked SF Fringe a couple of times when her shows were on the docket, so it’s possible that we’ve shaken hands at the EXIT before – I can’t recall. This is my first time ever seeing one of her shows from start-to-finish. Having now seen one, I can see why audiences laud her so highly. Ice-breakers like the opening “No” joke seem designed to put us at ease more than she herself. Her wardrobe – basic blacks covered a navy-blue crushed velvet dressing gown – suggest a seriousness to the craft combined with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the bawdy nature of her story. You’re glad to hear her tell the story.
Having said that, the story itself is – for lack of a better word – fractured. Robards jumps back-and-forth quite often, making it sometimes hard to follow in chronological order. As much as I appreciate the expedition in which she sticks to the show’s advertised running time, she will occasionally come off as if she’s in a hurry to get the whole thing over with. Paradoxically, it adds to the casual nature of her storytelling, but it comes off as hearing a story from a friend who’s recalling everything stream-of-consciousness.
For instance, there’s a sequence in which her husband and his girlfriend take a trip to London: it was explained in such a way that I thought Kate went with them, only for her to tell of a dramatic incident that occurred in New York, where she stayed behind. Anecdotes like telling Josh’s mom that he and Kate are poly end abruptly. A story about a threesome with Josh and his (much younger) girlfriend also ends quick. Perhaps this was subtle shade at unsatisfactory bedroom prowess, but it made the show seem unfocused.
The best moments and characters are those given appropriate due diligence. For instance, a story about breaking glass as a way to relieve stress gives us an early look a Robards’ temperament. The inclusion of her dim-witted childhood friend has the biggest and best payoff during the show’s climax. Had more of the show been balanced like this (which, most likely, would have increased its running time), it would have been a story as appealing as its raconteur.
None of the materials provided name the show’s stage manager or sound designer, but they both do fine work here. I found myself frequently drawn in by the subtle sounds of breaking glass and the like when they’d pop up.
Robards’ show reminded me of a recent episode of the podcast Sweet Virgin Brian in which former-SF-actor-turned-LA-sketch-queen Kaeli Quick recalls her brief marriage to a not-so-great-guy (and I met that asshole, so I know how shitty he is). After reading this review, I suggest you give it a listen.
Robards’ story is one with a lot to say – all of it good – but often feels too rushed to say it all. I know the show’s been workshopped and performed numerous times across the country, but another edit may make it perfect. Again, its sped-up nature may be a subtle allusion to sex that ends to quickly. Still, certain moments definitely need room to breathe. After hearing Kate’s story in its entirety, she deserves to take as much time as she needs.
PolySHAMory is scheduled to run until the 8th of February in the Studio Theater of The Marsh – San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 75 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and further information, please visit the production’s official site here.