Monday, February 9, 2015

Pretty Filthy: The Heart of Porn

The last thing I thought I would feel at Pretty Filthy, the Civilians's new musical about the porn industry, was kinship.  As a newbie to the world of internet content, I wanted to raise a fist in solidarity with the characters on stage lamenting the trouble with making money anymore in the internet age. Porn stars and theater writers unite! It's a tough world out there when you pour your heart and soul (and other body parts for performers) into your work but no one wants to pay for it anymore.  Someone is getting rich but it's not you. 

Expanding upon their cabaret format, the Civilians take their documentary style storytelling to the porn industry and in doing so upend the stereotypes of drug-addled, desperate people clinging to the bottom rung of life and ending up in porn. This is not that story.  Highlighting voices of men and women who work in front of and behind the cameras they catalog the changing economics of Internet porn, the fading days of video stars, the inequity for performers of color, and the power that women in the industry have (and don't have).  It's not what you expect and yet what we have come to expect from this company who are primarily interested in voices we don't hear a lot of.

Bess Wohl authors the book with Michael Friedman doing music and lyrics and Steve Cosson directing.  They have shaped a story of a newbie to the industry Becky (Alyse Alan Louis) who moves to the San Fernando Valley with her boyfriend Bobby (Marrick Smith) in tow with the intent of becoming a porn star.  Agents guide the careers of the performers (Steve Rosen, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Jared Zirilli). For older performers such as Georgina (Luba Mason) the days of selling 1,000,000 copies of your videos are over.  Some couples struggle to stay together in the business, but others such as Oscar and Holly (Steve Rosen, Maria-Christina Oliveras) have managed. The racial politics of porn much like the racial politics of everything make the business an uphill climb for women of color as one performer explains (Lulu Fall).  Visionaries like Fredo (John Behlmann) cornered the squirting market until everyone started faking it.  And the time to make your mark is shorter and shorter and the profits are harder and harder.

The story of Becky and Bobby forms the backbone to the piece which feels like an expanded upon cabaret.  I'm not wholly complaining.  I love the Civilians's Let Me Ascertain You cabarets but it's episodic and the strength of the cabaret tends to be gorgeous singular moments when performer and material just click and the voice of the human experience becomes transcendent. Here, Pretty Filthy aims for a lot of laughs with a dollop of pathos.  And on the whole it delivers them.

Steve Rosen never met a lovable, weirdo he could not wholly inhabit.  Here he gets to run amok with characters such as porn agents, cameramen, and his piece de resistance, Oscar.  His Oscar somehow channels Constantine Maroulis and maybe Sesame Street's the Count in equal measure.  So much drama and a pure delight.  I could watch a show that was just all Rosen all the time.  Luba Mason seemed to be having a rough night with her voice but her character's strength and resilience after a long career in the industry was one of the more poignant moments of the night.  I was glad to see the focus return over and over again to women in the porn industry (on both sides of the camera) and though there was only one segment on the issues of race it was a powerful one with Lulu Fall making it quite clear the challenges for women of color in the industry. The cast across the board did a great job of playing multiple characters and giving each a distinct voice.

I thought the show reached for some extreme comedy at moments (most notably in the choice of phallic and squirting projections) which felt a little cheap considering how much smarter the rest of the work was.  Neil Patel's simple but wonderfully meaningful set (with the back of the Hollywood sign always in view) reminded us where we were and how the Valley's proximity to Hollywood was only just that.

Michael Friedman's lyrics can get verbose and get in the way of sentiment sometimes but the simpler moments seemed to deliver the message best.  His lovely and sad and searching refrain of "What If I Like It" and the confusing aspects of porn performers in their personal sex life (Becky & Bobby & Taylor & Dick) were for me stand-outs.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend this show.

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