By Claire Kiechel; Directed by Steve Cosson
Produced by The Civilians
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 5.19.19
Torn Page, 435 West 22nd Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 5.3.19
Tony Torn in Paul Swan is Dead and Gone. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: A celebration of camp.
In indie theatre, you must sometimes venture to a random street downtown, ascend a rickety staircase, and take your seat in someone's living room. But rarely is that experience as magical as The Civilians' mostly verbatim theatrical approach to the lesser-known camp goddess Paul Swan, once known as the “most beautiful man alive.” Swan is playwright Claire Kiechel’s great grand-uncle and we are soon to discover that he is just as strange as this niche theatrical salon, its small size (only thirty guests) a profoundly absent memory of what once was or imagined to be.
Camp is having a resurgence. This year’s Met Gala takes camp as its theme. RuPaul headlines. Perhaps the inanity of world events want us to retreat to a profoundly absurd, deeply indulgent form. Done poorly it is the over-eager Fringe Festival. Done properly, with a deep mystery of beautiful tragedy, it is the work of Paul Swan, a man played in Kiechel’s play by a perfectly gentle Tony Torn in Cleopatra eye makeup, who occasionally dons a toga from designer An-Lin Dauber—a sensible left breast exposed.
The Civilians, producing mostly work from existing text and non-fiction subjects, has taken the opportunity to allow Kiechel to explore her relative through a personal look at his poetry and music. It is 100% wink-and-nudge kind of stuff. The text here draws from an unpublished autobiography, newspapers, and films. All this lends to the feeling of an autopsy of Swan’s work, an exhibition and retrospective created by the artist from the grave. The program even bills this as a “pantomimic dance recital, also exhibitions of his portraits, murals, sculptures, and drawings,” rather than the play we are here to see.
There is some seemingly intentional confusion being mustered up by Kiechel. Our accompanist Bellamy (later Bollany, both played by Robert Johanson) is the first person we meet. For so long in fact, I start to wonder if this has all been an elaborate ruse—perhaps Paul Swan will not be joining us this evening. Instead the title character makes an entrance deserving of the Drag Race werkroom in a gold-plated sarcophagus that has implausibly appeared in this tiny living room. Then there are two performers (Helen Cespedes and Alexis Scott) who dance and sing as if they were puppets controlled by Swan. Later they are revealed to be camp theorist Susan Sontag and novelist James Purdy. But that isn’t the end of the reveals for these seemingly inconsequential characters. If you remove your wig, you better have another wig underneath.
While there is much to be confused about, director Steve Cosson makes the most impact in the latter half of Paul Swan is Dead and Gone. You most likely don’t know who Swan is. I did not. Even if he was the most beautiful, he still never achieved the fame he always dreamt of—“But I could have been divine,” he sings with envy and despair. Cosson leans in to this moment as if we’re in a tragic melodrama. I unexpectedly wept for a loss I did not know I had. But for just a moment or two we can all be less lonely in his presence, however dead and gone he might be.
(Paul Swan is Dead and Gone plays at Torn Page, 435 West 22nd Street, through May 19, 2019. The running time is 75 minutes. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 4 and 8, and Sundays at 4. Tickets are $35 - $60 and are available at thecivilians.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
Paul Swan is Dead and Gone is written by Claire Kiechel. Directed by Steve Cosson. Set Design by Andromache Chalfant. Costume Design by An-Lin Dauber. Lighting Design by Lucrecia Briceño. Sound Design by Avi Amon. Production Stage Manager is Ryan Gohsman.
The cast is Helen Cespedes, Robert Johanson, Alexis Scott, and Tony Torn.