The Permissive Society

Habeas Corpus surrenders the body

Photo by Henry Dirocco/SCRThe British seem to have discovered sex sometime in the 1960s, not long after the ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover was lifted, which paved the way for a slew of bawdy entertainments like Monty Python; No Sex Please, We're British; The Benny Hill Show; and to an extent, the entendre-loaded Austin Powers movies. The popularity of the Powers flicks are probably what the schedule makers at South Coast Rep had in mind when they chose to stage Alan Bennett's 1973 sex farce Habeas Corpus, awash as it is in period references—the old pop tunes that spin before the house lights drop, the hideous plaid outfits worn by several characters (fashionable in 1973, hysterical in 2004), even in the play's ad campaign depicting a hot naked chick silhouetted by the Union Jack.

Habeas is very much a period piece, and that's largely the trouble: 31 years on, it's about as moldy and dated as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. We're sure the play's many references to shagging and all its synonyms (here's one: "docking procedure") may have seemed shocking to many a Brit bluehair then, but now, they're merely quaint.

And honestly, we barely remember what thin plot there is to Habeas—the whole thing is like a two-hour orgy, a whirlwind of people obsessed with getting it on and all the foreplay that goes with it. There are horny doctors, breast implants, horny vicars, rectal exams, horny housewives, titty gropings, pants droppings, horny daughters . . . you'd think SCR would've provided condoms inside the theater programs or at the very least a scorecard so audiences can keep track of who's boffing whom.

There are character names like Canon Throbbing (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), Lady Rumpers and Sir Percy Shorter; outbreaks of spontaneous choreography; and dialogue that's written in rhyming prose, which is cute the first time but totally annoying each time after. Some lines are almost painful to hear ("At last! A tenant for my fallow loins!" exclaims one character), but others land knockout punches: the funniest line (and yes, we'll spoil it for you now) is when the vicar compares the figure of a shapely young lady he's got a hard-on for to that of a young boy—"Perhaps that's what attracted me to her in the first place!" At the performance—in a county still dealing with priestly sex scandals—this brought a smattering of disdainful mumbling in the SCR crowd. We, of course, were delighted.

Surprisingly, there's not a single gay character in the play, which probably would have been too much for 1973—the "permissive society," which is often referred to here, was only permissive to a certain degree. Were this play penned today, though, you know at least one of these characters would have left their spouse for someone of the same sex; or a goat; or just about anything moist, warm and furry that comes with a built-in orifice. As Brit sex farces go, we await the day when SCR stages that.

HABEAS CORPUS AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY'S SEGERSTROM STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 21. $19-$56.

 
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