The White Whore & the Bit Player

Tom Eyen
Rosemary Branch Theatre
(2011)

The White Whore & the Bit Player publicity image

Although he was a prolific playwright (best known for his book and lyrics for Dreamgirls, though he wrote many plays for Off-Broadway,) this was my first encounter with Tom Eyen's other work. It was originally produced in 1964 at La Mamma (for which he wrote 34 other plays, also directing most of them!) and the Rosie is presenting both that version and a discreetly updated text played consecutively. I saw both and recommend doing so for, while different, they reflect off each other and you get to see two excellent actresses swap roles.

Witty and remarkably plain speaking for 1964, at the core of the story is the Hollywood studio star system and its contracts. This seems to be the story of two players caught up in that trap, the Whore and the Bit Player, but in fact, as a voice-over tells us at the opening of the play, it is the story of one woman in the last ten seconds of her life before committing suicide. She was the virginal ex-nun, confined to what she prefers to call cameo roles, killed off by the studio but given a second chance as a sex object in exploitation movies, her 'breasts hanging free for milk-hungry mankind.' One tells the other, 'You could screw. That's all you could do, on screen or off;' while the sex star puts her down as 'the dinosaur of B movies from small town Indiana.' Eyen certainly had a gift for the colourful phrase - both personalities have received a blow from 'the penis pendulum of time.'

As each embodiment slags off the other, incarcerated in an asylum by the studio which has announced the death of both, we can piece together fragments from her life. The uncaring parent, the abusive Mother Superior who was a bull dyke, the hopeless job interview, the desperation that made her sign a 65 year contract, the ruthless movie men, and a frustration that leads to this metaphor of turning on oneself.

In the original version Helen-Russell Clark plays the Bit Player Nun and Laura Pradelska the silk-shifted White Whore, though even then they swap clothes and sides of the mirror at one point as the play builds to its climax. They are engrossing performances that hold even though the surreal situation takes some time to work out, the focus constantly changing.

The contemporary adaptation, with the casting reversed, is more easily comprehensible - one is hearing the text for the second time. There are some textual amendments. An aging line used as the reason for dismissal becomes a line of cocaine and a couple of references made recent while 'because I'm worth it' slips in as entirely natural and appropriate. It is almost entirely the same script but in staging and performance almost a positive/negative transformation which is reflected in the set, while an African Mass is replaced by the strains of Arvo Pärt and a much more in-your-face presentation which results in two startlingly different performances from the actors. Self-videoing makes its own comment on contemporary culture and on theatrical fads

Both versions are effective. This is a wonderful demonstration of how differently a play can be presented, even with the same team of director/designer (Ken McClymont), lighting (Jim Secondé) and performers. Either can stand alone as an intriguing 60-minute play but together they make a particularly satisfying evening of theatre, the exuberance of the contemporary version with its sparklingly different characterisations hits a peak and is very funny. This casting seems ideal, with both performers perhaps playing against type, but its reception is immeasurably affected by having seen the earlier version first. If you can only get to one I think you will find either intriguing and amusing although at its head is the pain that makes for self-bitching and leads to self-slaughter but being sorry for this Hollywood cast off won't stop your laughter..

Run of both versions ends 30th January

Reviewer: Howard Loxton