On Tuesday night, I ran into NYC to see “What I Learned from Porn” a one-man show starring Steven Kates, who is better known to porn viewers as non-sex performer Frank Bukkwyd.
When I first started watching porn, what drew me in (beyond the obvious) was the low-budget production of so many late-80s/early-90s productions. New Wave Hookers had a grunge aesthetic and its sets were literally made of cardboard. The productions were thrown together and some of my favorite performers from that era had a gameness to their performances that I would really appealing as a college theatre/TV student. The Randys, Spears and West, were often found in movies written by Cash Markman, and they were my favorite “plotted” porn at the time; light, breezy and a little bit cheesy.
So when I heard that Markman’s protege was doing a one-man show as part of the Fringe NYC festival, I felt compelled to check it out.
I did a little research and found out that the show had been written and first performed back in 2010 during a workshop run by Ann Randolph and then done sporadically since then, so the piece had time to be developed and it seemed like a pretty good fit for the Fringe.
I got into NYC earlier than I expected and I had some time to kill, but I didn’t want to go far because I wasn’t able to purchase tickets ahead of time, and I’ve had times when I’ve missed a Fringe show because they’ve sold out at the door, and I didn’t want that to happen.
I stopped off and grabbed a sandwich at one of my favorite neighborhood spots and then hung around the lobby of the theatre, charging my phone, waiting for the box office to open at 8:45.
Finally, I got my ticket and a few minutes after the opened the house, I went in.
I was alone.
Happily, a second guy came in a few minutes later and right after the show started a girl snuck in, so we were an audience of three.
Frank opened the show with this public service announcement:
Pretty entertaining! But the energy of the show faltered a little as we moved from multimedia to real life. Some of this was no doubt due to the fact that there were only five people in the room, two of whom were involved in putting on the show.
The stories unfolded with ease and video clips and slides were used help illustrate some points.
Somewhat to their detriment, stories were mostly told generically, without mentioning names. While I knew who he was talking about when he told the story of the time he “was working with an actor-director-producer on a script for a movie about the sad tale of his ex-girlfriend who got into porn, got caught up drugs and the Sunset Strip rock club life and passed away…” I found it a little distracting that he didn’t just say “I was working with Buck Adams on the story of Savannah‘s life and suicide for a movie called Little Girl Lost…” (especially since everyone involved in the story is dead.) I’m not sure what was gained by his coyness, where the details of adding names could only help increase the understanding. Maybe he didn’t want to seem namedrop-y? But each time, it took me out a little bit.
The other times he didn’t use names I was fine with as he created pastiches of performers which weren’t always flattering, but seemed like they could have been composites more than actual biographies.
Towards the end, the story got a little dark as he moralized a little about the damaged people who also find their way into the adult industry, and while it was difficult tonal shift and seemed to run a little contrary to his “porn production is weird and fun” platform, the sequence was effective. There *is* an underside to this thing called porn and not everyone in it is as well adjusted as Nina Hartley.
I thought it was odd coming in and out of this transition and would look for a way to ease it in. The section was accompanied by a stark lighting shift (“dim, serious lighting!”) in a show that had very few lighting cues, so that made it extra jarring. Perhaps if the lights were a little more jumpy in response to various sections of the text it would be easier to make the transition between sections (“Ah!” we should say to ourselves “A new thought brings new lights!”).
A small, related gripe: the presence of a music stand with notes on it. In a workshop setting, perfectly acceptable — but a Fringe show is supposed to be half-a-step beyond the workshop, so I kinda expect a performer to be off-book. It didn’t help that the A/C blew the pages off the stand a couple times. Perhaps the multimedia design could be reworked so that slides introducing sections could be used as the crutches or signposts that the notes were providing.
Overall, I have positive feelings about the production and hope Kates is willing and able to further its development, perhaps with the help of someone with a little more experience in the one-man-show department; as I think the one-man-show is a special animal and a special kind of writing.
I really wish more people were in the room when I saw it, and that may be the fault of the publicity materials. I’m not sure what the goal was in having the sole image for the show appear be a tribute to Salvador Dali or Frank Nelson, or more currently, The Yes Guy. The picture doesn’t really look like Frank — granted I’m not as intimately familiar with his roles to say “Oh, that was most famous role as “Not the Yes Guy” in “Simpsons: The XXX Parody” (Real movie, fake character) — but I don’t think its the kind of picture that would bring in someone who didn’t know who Frank Bukkwyd was. Maybe a 9 panel Brady Bunch-y collage of his various looks and appearances (which he shows off to very funny effect via video in the show) or something more staged that had a bit of a punchline to it. (Him in a towel looking clearly out of place on a porn set; tho maybe that’s more an image for Dave Cummings to use…)
The show isn’t so serious about itself or about its subject, and while he says the show isn’t for everyone, it’s far from filthy; in fact, he seems to go out of his way to keep it from veering there. Only briefly does he touch upon the discipline required to be a porn performer and the accouterments needed (douche, lube, condoms, etc.) and its only in those moments that he really talks about sex in anything resembling graphic. He teases the phrase “anal intercourse” through the course of the show, but it seems done in a way to counter the fact that he really doesn’t talk about the sex all that much.
And that’s fine, because he’s a non-sex performer, and before that, a writer.
The show’s program doesn’t mention a director and the publicity materials only credit “Alan Smithee’s Second Cousin” and that’s probably the show’s biggest failing. With a good director to help shape the piece and force Kates to be a little more present at times, I think there’s a real entertaining (and tourable!) story to be had here.