Eleanor O’Brien has spent a long time creating shows about sex. GGG: Dominatrix for Dummies, about her misadventures in a house of domination, was her first solo show (I reviewed it back in 2011), and she’s been honing it for a decade. In 2009, for the inaugural Fertile Ground festival of new works, she premiered Inviting Desire, an ensemble production in which the performers related their deepest erotic fantasies (Ben Waterhousesaw a version a few months later). She’s since mounted other versions of Inviting Desire that have riffed on sexual freedom, group sex and polyamory.
But as many years as O’Brien has spent producing shows about sex, she’s spent far, far longer thinking about the act itself. “I started acting out sex scenes when I was five, maybe six,” says O’Brien at the beginning of her new solo piece, Lust & Marriage
, which is being workshopped for this year’s Fertile Ground
fest. From there, the engrossing show finds O’Brien recounting her childhood obsession with sex (she prowled her parents’ library, skimming books for key terms), the ill-fated entanglements of her college years (something particularly regrettable happens after three pints of cider), “the blur” of experimentation and casual coitus in her 20s and, eventually, a pivotal week at Burning Man, where a veritable god emerges from the swirling sand, clad only in a loincloth, pink bowtie and a fine layer of playa dust.
O’Brien recounts it all with verve and zip and generous heaps of humor, her auburn curls bouncing as she bounds barefoot about the tiny stage. (Sit in the front row and you might get some special attention…or a banana.) Periodically, she plucks a letter from one of the green envelopes dotting the board behind her and reads aloud a note to Dan Savage. Then, in a voice that makes Savage sounds oddly like a stoner-bro, she narrates his response. “DTMFA!” he advises early on. (Savage noobs, that’s “dump the motherfucker already.”)
But later, as O’Brien details her fraught attitude toward polyamory—and, coupled with that, her need for reassurance and tendency toward jealousy—the responses grow more poignant, if no less cheeky. “Feelings are sacrosanct little mysteries and there’s nothing you can do about them,” says O’Brien’s fictionalized Savage. The letters make for a clever structuring device, one that manages to skirt gimmickry and allow O’Brien to move easily from autobiographical anecdotes to broader musings about sex, love and marriage. With a presence that’s sympathetic and engaging—and a refreshing lack of preachiness—O’Brien poses questions that transcend her particular experiences. And it’s that ability, even as she’s describing a threesome with her husband and a Bettie Page lookalike or a near-epileptic fit at an ayahuasca retreat, that makes this show stick.