What does it mean to be intimate with someone? To feel known, to be seen? When does that happen, and how, playwright Kirk Lynn asks, do you even begin to enact that degree of vulnerability with another person?
Present Company Theatre and director Alexandra Bassiakou Shaw wend through these questions and more in this heartfelt regional premiere of Lynn’s “Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra.”
The female-run theater collective has outfitted The Museum of Human Achievement, a sex-toy-factory-turned-arts-space in East Austin for the production. Although no traces of the warehouse’s former purpose remain, the play is rife with sex — or more accurately — the memories it can trail in its wake. Amanda Perry’s scenic and Natalie George’s lighting designs put us in a space where the naked lightbulbs in a wall of unshaded lamps illuminate consequences of people hurting other people.
Lynn (a member of the celebrated theater collective Rude Mechs and a UT professor) has crafted characters who also salve each other’s wounds and, with his trademark sincerity, tear into the barriers of insecurity and grief that insulate us from those we call family.
A live band, cocktail tables, and plentiful libations scattered through the audience casually invite us into the story of Carla (Yamin Khouane) and Reggie (Judd Farris), an engaged couple who agree to recreate their entire sexual histories with each other before they get married. The proposition is, of course, ridiculous: it’s riddled with embarrassing secrets, foibles, and hilarious hand jobs. In other words, it demands total intimacy, and that becomes not at all ridiculous to these smart, flawed people.
Khouane is sensuous and self-assured, her confidence throughout the play arguing successfully that truly knowing your partner is worth the vulnerability. Her intervention is that she knows how to ask for it. She is a force of guru-like energy in counterpoint to Farris’s initially milquetoast Reggie, a dynamic that makes the couple easy to root for.
Ex-girlfriend / still-best-friend Toni (Amber Quick) wrenches up the tension between Reggie and his fianceé. Quick explodes compellingly onto the stage in each of her scenes, but it’s her character’s perspective as a high-powered professional negotiator that makes her essential to the audience. As an interested third party, she can name and calculate the mechanics of the game for us — that is, until she can’t.
In interstitial scenes, a trio of high schoolers party away. While we gradually piece together their relationships to Toni, Carla, and Reggie, thematic returns to unfulfilled desires for intimacy resonate in Sean’s (Nash Ferguson) inability to ask out Bernie (Sophia Isabel Quiroga) and in Cole (Blake Robbins) opining on the virtues of date rape drugs. Quiroga ably manipulates what could be a manic-pixie-trope. (Unfazed, she asks strangers at parties if they “had to choose one of their parents to die tonight, which would it be?”) The play turns on that expectation, however, and situates Bernie’s sturm und drang back within her family, giving her context and texture.
Above all, Present Company has delivered a poignant, comedic play of near-misses. The critical events in life — Lynn implies — happen the night before the wedding, during the rehearsal for the eulogy, or in the conversations just after sex. Bassiakou Shaw and the company have found these contact zones, and the confrontations stir up new understandings. Only in the minutes after her breakup, for example, can Bernie stomach curling up on the sofa to hear about her parents’ sex life. And only after following that journey with them all can the audience find some sweetness in such a cringy moment.
“Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra” nestles in its very title a checklist of what you might expect from the production:
- It is in fact a play about sex. Like the ancient Hindu text, however, positions and techniques only account for one aspect of its larger interest in sexual behavior and intimacy.
- It finds meaning in being a copy — never quite the exact thing, always a little disjointed between the original and the evidence. Like all performances, it supposes that a re-enactment can convey something crucial that telling would not.
- It is a play about a mother and thus family, but;
- It is a play about your mother in which audience members must access those cringy moments, those social taboos for themselves with the promise that they will lead to something worth talking about.