John Strausbaugh

Making Book

Bortz Belt

Lauri Bortz is bent. She was involved in Sordid Lives, the weekly live-soap thing they used to perform at the Pyramid Club. A Modicum of Passion and Fixed, the two short plays in To-night at 8:00 (New Abaton Library, 104 pages), are whack fantasies, bluffly ridiculous in a way equally reminiscent of Charles Ludlum's parodies, vintage John Waters and the goony epics children make their toys and dolls act out on rainy afternoons. Alfred Jarry would recognize the strident illogicality of these stories; so would David Lynch. And Tennessee Williams might be tickled by the melo-romantic flamers Bortz peoples them with. They're all somehow romance-damaged, monsters of love -- real drama queens.

Bortz has packages the plays (the book is evidently self-published, to judge from the "smiling Lauri-head" logo) to look like an old play-book from the 19402 or 50s. It is as much a fantasy as her plays. The deliberately antique spelling of that To-Night is matched by a white-gloved, ladies-reading-circle design and a lot of podsnappian old-timey blather like cover blurbs trumpeting: "An ABATON BOOK is always excellent reading -- but more than that -- it is a good book. Every volume is printed on a sturdy, opaque paper, in a clear, modern, and easy-to-read typeface..." And: "Because the New Abaton Books are easy to open, light to hold, thrilling to read, and compact to carry or store in clothing or bags, they are ideal as gifts to the Armed Forces."

The plays are similarly straight-faced absurdities. A Modicum of Passion ("a trauma in six scenes") is set in some alternate universe where there's an industry of female breeders (called, um, Breeders), rough-hewn, baby-drappin' women who sell their infants to a large and ready markets of married gay men. Jakob Blythe, a big, well-meaning doofus, buys a fresh infant for his wife, the prissy Tobias Folwen. To Tobias' disgust, however, little "Jakob Folwen-Blythe" turns out to be a girl baby. Tobias throws a fit:

TOBIAS: It's a beast!

JAKOB (sincerely): It's a girl.

TOBIAS (snidely): Yes, Jake, I know. And what am I supposed to do with it?

Jakob complains that he can't take "it" back to the Breeder, who's already saddled with too many girls she can't sell off (marvelously, she's named them Can't, Won't, and the twins Don't and Didn't). he forgot to get a receipt, too. Tobias is unyielding:

TOBIAS (mildly disgusted): Must you perpetually be bringing home strays? I said yes to the cat, the turtle, the rabbit, the dog, and the billy goat. ut not this, Jake. Our home is not a zoo. I'm sorry. This time, you'll have to get rid of it.

He makes Jakob put it out on the front porch, where either it'll freeze to death overnight or the cat will eat it. "The housegirl can bury her in the garden tomorrow," Tobias shrugs. "I've been meaning to add a fertilizer." (There's much of Waters' influence, at least cultural-environmentally, in this blithely murderous bitch-queen.)

Later that night, Tobias retrieves the silent, presumably frozen-solid, baby from the porch. To his horror, the inside warmth revives her. Tobias' heart begins to melt a bit as well. A visit to the hut of Breeder 674, the sturdy, beer-drinkin', Cajun-talkin' woman who bore her, turns him around completely. He decides a daughter won't be so bad. She can wear his cast-off chiffons. The Breeder suggests a name or her: Ain't. But Bortz has another gleefully-cruel plot twist in store for the child. Ain't...indeed.

That Bortz is playing around so mischievously with such heavily-coded stuff may be the single socially-redeeming aspect of this nutty little farce. That, and that it's so funny.

Fixed is more epic in its weirdness; the crashing planes of surreality that add to its happily slapdash plot make A Modicum of Passion seem like a neat, classically-constructed and entirely ordinary one-act by comparison.

It begins with a lurid murder: a dark woman finds her man in bed with a beautiful blonde, and strangles them both with the beautiful blonde's beautiful blonde hair. Blackout, then Bortz proceeds to unfold the explanation in a series of flashbacks. A common-enough tactic, if the flashbacks weren't so goofy, the explanation so outlandish.

The man is Mickey Tophet, who teaches third grade. The dark woman is his hot-blooded gypsy-ish wife Zenobia. After ten years the marriage has cooled. Her job takes her away a lot: she's a fire-eater with the circus. This gives Mickey opportunity to fall for the blonde, Adelaide, a model who aspires to become an actress. They start sleeping together. (He also makes her the star of his third-grade students' play, which pisses off the mother of the little girl originally cast in the lead.)

Zenobia, meanwhile, sniffs something rotten. She goes for advice to her best friend: Corky Covert, a very small, and very queeny, circus clown. (In a little bit of inspired side nonsense, we learn that Corky's mother was...a nun.) Corky takes Zenobia to see his personal fortune-teller, Madame Matrushka. Madame throws a spell on Adelaide. But through a magical mishap at Madame's place, Corky and Zenobia are shot back in town -- to Elizabethan England.

Why Elizabethan England? Who the hell knows? Maybe just for the chance to send it up as the font of all Western theater. Bortz is, after all, very definitely screwing with All Western Theater here.

Anyway, in Elizabethan England, everybody seems to mistake Zenobia for Sir Francis Drake. And the Sir Lancelot Love, a knight with the head of a horse, like a walking chess piece, falls in love with Corky, whom he takes for a fair damsel. Corky, of course, is just pleased as punch to be prancing around in fair damsel outfits, albeit while still wearing his clown shoes. Meanwhile, back in our time, Madame Matrushka's spell has reduced Adelaide to a monotone drudge; she's the worst actor in the third-graders' play.

In the end, Zenobia returns to the present, finds them in bed together and does the hair-strangling bit. A little faux-Elizabethan doggerel for the moral and epilogue, and the play ends as murkily as it began.

Oh, it makes sense, but only in the way a dream does. Lynch would approve. It's the subversion of the traditional murder-mystery play's structure -- the way those flashbacks don't add up to anything any sane person would call a logical explanation -- that makes Fixed funny. It's like taking the Hitchcock-Dali collaboration on the ridiculously complicated Spellbound about three parsecs farther into outer space. I bet if you saw it in the theater you'd come out scratching your head and muttering, "What the fuck did I just see?" -- but it'd stick with you and keep bothering you afterward.

Which is one hallmark of successful theater, ain't it.