Lauri Bortz Talks About Her Strange, Funny, Childlike?ro;”But Hardly Innocent?ro;”Plays
Lauri Bortz writes some of the strangest, funniest plays I've encountered this side of Charles Ludlam or Alfred Jarry. She's by turns a Surrealist, Absurdist and 'Pataphysician in an era when any one of those qualities is rare. Her plays are so weird it's really no wonder she has trouble getting them produced, and publishes them through her own Abaton Books ([abatonbookcompany.com]). To-night at 8:00, published a couple years ago, contains the oddball one-acts A Modicum of Passion and Fixed; the new Playbortz presents Skirting the Issue and Catfight. (They're $15 each, and can be bought through the website or [Amazon](http://www.amazon.com).)
Like Jarry's, her plays are childlike but far from innocent; they're madly hectic and often subtly malevolent, like shows put on by evil-genius bad seeds on a rainy day. She revels in the retro, with characters like people on an alternate Earth trapped somewhere between the 1930s and 50s. Playbortz is a thorough visual and verbal pun on a Playbill?one from, say, the 1950s?complete with a joking reference to the "Tiny Award" on the cover, and antique (and twisted) ads she built with a Brazilian artist friend, Roberto Cabot.
Skirting the Issue is the crazed tour de force in Playbortz, featuring a bizarre suburban family: Poppy, who is literally an airhead (his head's a balloon); Mummy, who's literally a mummy; and their adorable, innocently sluttish little girl Bébé, who was inspired, Bortz tells me, by JonBenet. They speak almost entirely in intricate puns, lascivious double entendre and dizzying wordplay. They insist on calling the Yellow Pages Veritas Aureus. Almost everything Bébé says is a lewd joke, sometimes funny, sometimes just plain creepy, as when she goes on about being Poppy's "member" in the family club, or coos the praises of the smooth, pink, sweet homunculus she hopes to get for Christmas.
At its most elaborate, the wordplay flies off into purest Surrealism, as when Mummy and a nun named Sister Scholastica (from the "Holy Toledo School for Girls. God's work 24 hours a day. We deliver.") have an entire conversation spoken to the tune of "Dominique":
SISTER SCHOLASTICA: Holy Toledo. Sister Scholastica speaking. How may I direct your call?
MUMMY: My little girl doesn't know her ABCs. We need help, lickety split.
SCHOLASTICA: Is her name Tom, Dick or Floyd?
MUMMY: Why, that would be oh so silly.
SCHOLASTICA: But it's Sister Mister's clue. Has her mind gone null and void?
MUMMY: No, of course not, really!
SCHOLASTICA: Then we cannot put her in our petting zoo.
SCHOLASTICA: Does she hail from Detroit?
SCHOLASTICA: Jesu Chrysler's not for you. Does she fear an asteroid?
SCHOLASTICA: (Becoming impatient) Cancel Sister YK2.
And so on. The play ends with Bébé singing a scandalously reworked version of "Jesus Loves Me."
When I first met them a couple years ago, Bortz and her husband, the visual artist Mark Dagley, had fled New York City for the cheap rents in Newton, NJ, where, she now tells me, "I really never met anybody who wasn't mentally retarded." It was there, however, that they became mentors to Marianne Nowottny, the teenage singer-songwriter whose music is as surrealist as Bortz's plays. Abaton has just released Nowottny's second album, a two-CD set called Manmade Girl. Bortz and Dagley recently relocated to Jersey City.
Bortz and I had the following conversation a couple of weeks ago.
JS: You're nuts.
Yeah, I think so. Sorry. I mean that in the best way.
Nothing I haven't heard before, John.
Talk to me about yourself. School, for instance.
I didn't have a lot of formal education.
So you're uneducated?
Self-taught, I prefer. "Uneducated" is not flattering, John. But I've been writing plays since I was a kid, since I was six years old. I started reading really early and we had a school play in first grade and I just became really attached to the form. And because I went to public school in the 70s, they allowed me to perform my plays whenever. In class, I had a new piece, I was given the floor.
That's interesting. Your plays have retained a certain childlike, playtime quality, I think. Didn't you have a couple of one-acts professionally produced here in the city when you were young, like in the early 90s?
I had my first plays produced, but it was really disastrous, in my 20s. It was in Manhattan, a company called AWD. They gave me a summer run of a couple of plays. Only they asked me not to come into the rehearsal process until they'd been working a couple of weeks, and I now know that was a red flag. But you know, I was a kid, I was excited. I had this eight-week run at this theater that was at 8th Ave. and 47th St., right around the corner from the Walter Kerr. Angels in America was running at the time. "So, okay, maybe someone will stumble into here." But they ended up really making mincemeat out of the two plays. They dropped some scenes and rearranged the order of things without my permission. I came in, saw that they'd done that, of course flipped out. I had the director fired. The artistic director took over, but she was working on a film at the time. She gave no attention to the piece. Although I brought in a good cast, we only had a couple of weeks to get things together. They had no props, no costumes. I made everything. I mixed the music.
The second piece, they had a director who insisted that his style was naturalistic. And I said [as though explaining to a dull child], "You can't direct farce naturalistically, because it won't be funny." And he didn't get that. So, opening night the cast forgot to do one scene. Nobody knew their lines. The person who was running tech put in the wrong music. I insisted that they close the show. After the third day, when nobody improved at all, I took back the costumes, props and music and said, "Okay, if you're gonna do this you're doing it without my help." And the shows closed and the theater company folded. I didn't write a play for a little while after.
Since then you've had trouble getting your work produced. I guess that's not a great surprise, since this work is so weird.
Basically I've wanted to start a theater company, and I can't really get actors who are committed. No one wants to be a Superstar. And I can't promise that they'll all become Marianne Nowottny... I've kind of surrendered. I'm here if anyone wants to produce my plays. I'm just going to focus now on publications and recorded versions of my plays. They did Skirting the Issue at KFJC in Los Altos [CA].
There are photos in Playbortz of a staged reading of Skirting the Issue. When was that?
The staged reading was last September at Jefferson Market Library. I actually met a group of people that have been pretty supportive, a women's playwriting group. They're mostly really old, like maybe median age 60. There's some really old ladies in the group. And one of the oldest ones, she's a big fan of mine, she organized the staged reading.
You were in it, playing Bébé. Was that your idea?
That was by default. It was supposed to be [Marianne Nowottny's friend] Donna Bailey and she crapped out a week before. I was directing it. It's pretty hard to direct a piece that you're in?in fact, it's impossible. Thank God I had a good cast and they didn't need a director, at least for that last stretch. They were great. It turned out really well. I wanted to use them again. It's just been very hard to coordinate everyone's schedule, because they're grownups, and a lot of them are professionals and they really don't have the time. People have families now. So I'm gonna do all the characters myself [in the recordings].
Didn't you sort of jinx yourself by putting that Tiny Award joke on the cover?
[The same woman who organized the reading of Skirting the Issue] begged me to enter this competition at the Pen and Brush Club. She's on the board there. I'm not real fond of entering these competitions, the rejection gets a little hard to take after a while. But there was some judge they hired from the outside, and I ended up winning.
So you actually wound up winning a tiny award after you'd put that on the cover.
I won a very tiny award. I won 100 bucks, and that's pretty tiny these days.
Talk to me about the retro look you do. [Every time I've seen Bortz she's been dressed, as someone here in the office remarked, like a woman going to meet Sam Spade: swishy cotton dress, big hat, big shoes, glossy lips and hair. It's a look she wears fabulously, and it's also extravagantly theatrical.]
I have a collection of 30s and 40s clothes and I like them, and I wear them every day. I have a few theories about it. I tried to make a film in Germany a few years back on Jewish paranoia in Germany. I was working with some German filmmakers. They edited the piece?it was supposed to be a 20-minute, half-hour piece?they edited it down to a three-minute techno video. Now do you understand why I'm paranoid in Germany? [laughs]
You say it sort of freaked people out in Germany to see this young Jewish woman walking around in these 30s and 40s outfits like a ghost from their past. So it's almost fashion as a political statement.
That hadn't been my intention here. Here you think of glamour with the 30s and 40s. That's not what they think in Germany. Especially when they see someone who, for some reason, to them is really obviously Jewish. When I was in Spain they thought I was Spanish, in Italy they thought I was Italian. In Germany?"You're Jewish, right? What is it like to be Jewish here?" I can't tell you how many people?it was creepy, but interesting.
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