In 1928, the classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness was published. Written by British author Radclyffe Hall, the book, though revolutionary for the time, took a rather dire view of homosexuality – or “sexual inversion,” as it was called – amidst the turbulence of the First World War. Fast forward to the 1980s and performance artist Holly Hughes pens The Well of Horniness, a camp play that happily wades through all of the muck that characterizes the ultimate in lesbian cliche – butch, femme and all.
As part of GayFest this season, Quince Productions opens the comedy in previews starting tomorrow (Aug. 8). We talked to the show’s director Allison Heishman, an emerging young talent (she’s literary manager at Azuka Theatre) who just worked as assistant director on Angels in America at the Wilma (she’s also getting ready to focus on part two of the ground-breaking AIDS play set to open in October – rehearsals start this week), about how she’s interpreted the farce for Philly and how she plays with notions of gender and sexuality among female characters played by both men and women.
You recently came off of the successful production of Angels In America. What’s it like going from a play about AIDS to a play about randy lesbians?
Both productions, despite their major differences, have been fun and challenging. Coming off of Millennium Approaches and falling into the “well” was a welcome shift in style. In Well of Horniness, we get to just play and laugh and roll around on the floor looking up each other’s skirts. There’s a responsibility to the work and to the community, but at the end of the day with a play like this, it’s all about making each other laugh.
Compared to the 1920s novel on which the play’s loosely named (but pretty much reinvented), The Well of Horniness is somewhat madcap. How are you treating the production for today’s audiences who may think they’ve seen everything?
Oh, it’s completely different! I think Hughes took the sense of isolation and shame that is famously connected with the novel and just sends it up into this wonderfully campy sexy place. Our “heroine” is still running from her sexuality, but when you have her literally running from it, through the mountains, in heels, it has an entirely different effect! I think that audiences today will really dig the play, even though it was written almost 30 years ago; it’s so stylized and fun that as long as you’re up for the ride you’ll have a lot of fun.
How does the lesbian scene Hughes wrote about compare to the lesbian scene today?
I’m not sure you can really compare the scene when Holly was writing and the scene today, based on this play. It’s so over the top. It certainly deals with some major issues if you dig deep – but digging deep isn’t what this play is all about.
What are some important themes – campy as they may be – that you’re taking a look at in the show?
There is a common ground we can all find in the different parts of ourselves we choose to hide from public view. The show is all about the character Vicki trying to run away from who she really is, but we all hide something away at some point in our lives. That to me, has made the play easier to interpret.
Other productions have cast all women. But you chose to cast men, too. Why?
I chose not cast this as an all-female ensemble. Some of the funniest parodies in play are the caricatures she makes out of the men – to me it’s the next step in the storytelling, this isn’t just a story about lesbians, it’s about how we’re all involved in all of these stories – men, women, gay, straight, and everything in between.
What have been some of the more eye-opening moments in production so far?
We’re having a blast working on this, I feel like every rehearsal ends up being “eye-opening” based on what we come up with to help tell this story. As a company, we have been finding new things to play with, new jokes, new moments, every time we run through it. I fully expect every show to be different, and I certainly hope it will be. This cast is amazing at keeping things fresh and fun, and they play with and off of each other so well. Todd, Franny, Carl, Colleen and I all worked together in a sketch comedy group called POP! (Sketch Comedy for the Gifted) and they just have such a great sense of timing and comedy.
What might surprise audiences about this new production?
I think there will be surprises every night. It is a wild and wacky play, and I think we’ve given it a new twist. It’s very playful, and this production enhances that – it’s rough and fun – anything can happen (and hopefully will).
Click here for tickets for The Well of Horniness, which opens in previews Aug. 8 and runs through Sept. 1.