Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo
Little Green Pig at Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 7
May was a big month for Durham’s Monica Byrne. On May 20, Crown Publishing Group issued her speculative fiction novel The Girl in the Road, which came armed with big-time blurbs by the likes of Neil Gaiman. (See our review.) Just two days later, Byrne’s latest play, staged by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and directed by Jay O’Berski, opened at Manbites Dog Theater.
Both works are connected by the theme of polyamory, which, in the bawdy and anarchic Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo (no relation to Quentin), fuels an untidy exploration of the relationship between borders and safety. The playwright’s point about polyamory comes across a bit murky, but perhaps that’s deliberate. Even if you wholeheartedly believe monogamy to be a trap, it doesn’t make the alternatives any easier to navigate.
The spectacle revolves around an international group of Olympians—a German wrestler, a North Korean field hockey player, a Ukrainian badminton player, a Bosnian boxer and a married couple of American trapshooters—recruited by a secret organization to save the world with “sexual diplomacy.” They will do so by sleeping with each other in the hopes of making it into “the zone,” a sort of pan-amorous, non-possessive state of Zen. Those who do will be awarded the yellow speedo of the title, which was once worn by Arturo Tarantino, the vanished Italian diving champion who founded the philosophy and the organization.
If all of this sounds rather baffling—well, it is. INDY readers got a sneak peak at the outlandish scenario in a humor piece Byrne wrote in these pages in 2012, inspired by a news report of a surfeit of free condoms being distributed at the Olympics. Anyone who left the theater scratching their heads might find it clarifying.
Though it’s initially unclear why the Olympics should be the setting for this partner-swapping roundelay, we realize that it’s an apt setting as Byrne’s concerns gradually emerge from the whirlwind of raucous dance numbers, TV doc-style video bios, surrealist set pieces and explicit assignations. The Olympics are a place where nation-states compete for finite resources across imaginary borders, in the same way that individuals do for sex and love. The difference is that love, unlike medals or minerals, is theoretically an infinite resource—why, then, do we hoard it?
This is the central question the play continually circles without quite hitting the target of an answer. Even so, some deep notes are sounded, especially in versions of the refrain “what makes you feel safe?” tolling through the script like a dark bell. Byrne’s script, well written and often funny, is full of passionate screeds against monogamy. At the same time, unhappy outcomes seem to play against the brave words. Byrne manages to condense an affecting conclusion from the pandemonium and, without spoiling anything, we can say that “the zone” is discovered to have borders of its own, separating those inside it from those without.
The most engaging performances come from the serene, likable Nicola Bullock and the high-strung Caitlin Wells—who ably portrays her character’s eager, nervous energy—as the married American trapshooters, though the deck is heavily stacked in their favor. As their theoretically open marriage is tested by actual openness and the jealously that ensues—which Arturo Tarantino holds forth on in one of his ghostly appearances behind the projection screen—they shape up as the most richly, realistically drawn characters, with the clearest developmental arcs. This relatable anchor is especially welcome because the other roles, though gamely played, are all so outlandish.
Many of the international characters speak in atrocious accents (to be fair, Bullock’s Louisiana drawl is equally improbable), and they verge on milking ethnic or national stereotypes for laughs. Cameron McCallie’s lurid cross-dressing German wrestler has to stand naked on a pedestal and sing about how sexy he is over Erik Satie music. Kana Hatakeyama’s virginal North Korean field hockey player gets a video bio in the style of a propaganda film. These characters are too baroque a surface to portray the increasingly, and surprisingly, emotional payload of this play. That said, one sex scene between Jess Jones’ Bosnian boxer and LaKeisha Coffey’s Senegalese archer puts a revealing twist on the concept of borders, showing how they reside in privilege and class, as expressed by clothing, as well as love and war.
By the end of the play, we do get an explanation for Tarantino’s antipathy toward borders, but the clarification of his motivations doesn’t extend to whatever the play is trying to show us. As if acknowledging this, Byrne has multiple characters ask the instructors how their methods will accomplish their ends, never receiving satisfactory answers. All the ideation and excitement seems to conceal a somewhat unformed core. “Love must flow in its proper channels or it will destroy society,” Tarantino proclaims with confidence. But what are they? We don’t get much of a clue, only multiple troublesome options.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are your last chances to discern for yourself, and while you might leave confused, we promise you won’t be bored.
Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo