Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017
 

Multifaceted life
of a sexual renegade

Theatre


Brian Livingston plays Samuel Steward in one of his alter-egos as a tattoo artist in a scene with Carlo Barrera in Seth Eisen's Homo File at CounterPulse. Photo: Mark McBeth
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Samuel Steward was a voyeur of his own life. And it was a life that begged for voyeurism. But to dramatize it, well, that's a formidable aspiration, because it was a life of such disparately fascinating components, lived over so many years, and often centered on meticulously recorded sexual activities that could veer into dark corners. In Homo File at CounterPulse, writer-director-designer Seth Eisen puts to use an array of theatrical devices that finds a way to parallel a life lived on so many levels.

At least partly because of his use of pseudonyms to compartmentalize his activities – teaching at a Catholic university while operating a tattoo parlor on the wrong side of town, for example – Steward's name didn't gain prominence as a gay icon until the publication of Justin Spring's 2010 biography Secret Historian, based on Steward's own archives that had been stashed away in a San Francisco attic. The term "sexual renegade" is used in the subtitle of Spring's book, and in the case of Samuel Steward, it is not just a publisher's exploitive come-on. Homo File enters that world with a mix of candor and creative suggestion.

When we first meet Steward in Homo File, he is in the form of a marionette, elderly in appearance, and we will meet this figure again at the end of the play. But for most of the two-act production, Brian Livingston, who bears a resemblance to Steward's deceptively modest appearance, plays Steward as a shy observer, an enthusiastic participant, and a sly manipulator of his life's curious journey. Livingston must also employ acrobatic skills as various maneuvers give a visual representation to words being spoken.

Shadow puppets are also frequently employed, especially to give discreet and humorous representations of Steward's graphic recounting of numerous sexual encounters. Public restroom scenes are played out with live actors, but as choreographed encounters stirred on by creatively suggestive notes left by Steward in a niche by a urinal. That's how he discovered "my talent for penning eloquent smut," which will become a late-life career when he creates a hustler hero for a series of homoerotic novels under the pen name Phil Andros.

The most theatrically traditional scenes take place at Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas' country home in France, where the women provide maternal concern for the young writer, who seems unable to fulfill his creative promise. You might also expect a traditional approach in his encounters with legendary sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who finds in Steward a rare fount of unashamed homosexual reportage, but these meetings become creepily stylized as Kinsey suggests to an unreluctant Steward that he allow himself to be abused in staged S&M encounters for Kinsey's film archives.

There are five or so songs that periodically arise, but they more often than not let energy leak from an otherwise forceful forward trajectory. Helping sustain this spirit, while showing impressive versatility as the incredible range of characters who passed through Steward's life, are Katharine Otis, Michael Soldier, Ryan Hayes, Matthew Simmons, Carlos Barrera, Rich Hutchinson, and Diego Gomez. Impossible to credit here are the numerous names of all the designers who had a part in creating this extravaganza – an extravaganza being the only theatrical form worthy of the life of Samuel Steward.

 

Homo File will run at CounterPulse through June 15. Tickets are $24.99. Go to counterpulse.org.

 






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