A too-brief look at mismatched love

By Adrienne Urbanski

Given that her most well-known literary contributions depict the hardships of pioneer life, Willa Cather is not a name commonly associated with musicals. But her short story “Coming Aphrodite” revealed a change in subject, exploring the ambitions of young New Yorkers rather than lives on the prairie. While Cather’s work took place in a rooming house filled in Washington Square Park in 1920, La MaMa’s musical adaptation of the work transports the story to Brooklyn in 1983.

While Cather’s tale raised questions about aspirations and sexuality, Mary Fulham’s interpretation of the work remains superficial, although the simplistic narrative is somewhat filled with catchy musical numbers, animation, shadow puppetry, and a cast of gifted actors, all of whom give engaging performances.

Struggling painter Dan (Greg Hentis) spends his days painting, shirtless and tattooed, in the gloomy darkness of his rented room. He’s accompanied only by his trusty bulldog Cesar, played cleverly by Clayton Dean Smith, who manages, while dressed in a tweed suit and spectacles, to convincingly portray canine behavior. Most nights consist of two men slumped upon each other on a dingy orange sofa.

Soon however, Dan’s quiet days are interrupted by the arrival of a chirpy neighbor by the name of Eden (Liz Kimball), given to singing show tunes at the top of her lungs and walking the hall in a skimpy silk bath robe. Through a golden age of Broadway flavored dance number, Eden reveals (while donning a skimpy hot pink leotard) that she has fled a life known as Edna in rural Illinois, coming to New York in search of fame and fortune. At the moment she has her heart set on a role on Fantasy Island. Dan’s first impressions of the blonde would-be actress are of annoyance, finding himself unable to paint as her vocal exercises interrupt his train of thought. Eden of course expresses near equal disdain for the unkempt painter and his dog.

One day, while cleaning piles of discarded clothing from his wardrobe, Dan finds a hidden door connecting his room to Eden’s. He discovers that through a keyhole he is able to watch his neighbor exercising in the nude. Somehow, the girl that Dan had dismissed as a twit takes on the role of a goddess solely through the beauty of her naked body in motion. We the audience are given view of these movements through the use of a truck flap worthy shadow puppet. The sight of her body consumes Dan, defending his actions to his dog, stating, “It’s not about sex. Okay some of it is about sex, but it’s about more, too.”

What exactly this “more” is, we are never fully shown. While Dan once had nothing but annoyed sighs and retorts for Eden, he now clings to her every word, gazing at her high-heeled legs in wonderment. While Cather’s story convinced us otherwise, within this musical adaptation we are unable to see Dan’s interest in Eden as anything more than sexual attraction, though their eventual sexual relationship proves to be an amusing case of opposites attract. In the blink of an eye, the two become lovers and Eden spends her days posing regally for Dan.

The story itself is a small one, and the time devoted to Eden and Dan’s romance feels brief. The complexities of their opposing views on success and artistic vision could have been further expounded upon. Aside from a perfect figure, Eden’s appeal remains a mystery. However, the work as a whole remains entertaining, lit with captivating moments. Many of these can be credited to composer Mark Ettinger, who stretches out the predictable story with rousing, well done songs that run the gamut from edgy rock to classic Broadway. Each number is seamless, and all of the actors demonstrate talent for singing and dancing.

One particularly captivating scene consists of Dan describing his latest artistic vision to Eden through singing a dark fable of forbidden love while accompanied by an intricate shadow puppet show. This scene successfully encapsulates the clash of artistic visions between Dan and Eden, a clash that ultimately dooms the brief relationship, as Eden longs for fame and money while Dan longs for self-expression. As leads, both Kimball and Hentis are well cast, doing much with what they are given, both also successfully imbue their parts with evocative sexuality. Actress Anna Gaynor also adds successful comic relief to the piece, taking on dual roles as a begrudging, cookie gobbling landlord, and as a risqué Coney Island performance artist, who dances suggestively in a burlesque ensemble. The bright, surreal set also adds a touch of whimsy to the musical. While “Coming Aphrodite” may not an entirely memorable work, it certainly pleases the eyes and ears.