Lauri Bortz Talks About Her Strange, Funny, Childlikeâeuro;”But Hardly Innocentâeuro;”Plays

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


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.)

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":

(Introduction)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Verse)

SCHOLASTICA:
Does she hail from Detroit?

MUMMY:
No.

SCHOLASTICA:
Jesu Chrysler’s not for you. Does she fear an asteroid?

MUMMY:
No.

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.

You
think?

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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