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In 1534, better than four and a half centuries ago, a heretic by the name of John of Leyden declared that it was not in the interests of mankind for a man to work; that there was no sin in desire; and that, for the good of all, the “marketplace” (read: economy) should be destroyed. Fast-forward 441 years to on or near the same place (London) and we hear another John, this one named John Lyden, crying pretty much the same thing: no desire is sin, tear down the world and rebuild. So what connects two very different men, one old and one young, in two very different times, under very different circumstances, that they should think and feel the same way? That, my friends, is the notion behind Lipstick Traces, the very merry, very short play produced by Burning Coal Theatre Company, and now running in the Kennedy Theater at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh.
Originally conceived by Shawn Sides and created by the Rude Mechs of Austin, TX, Lipstick Traces is “a secret history of the 20th Century.” Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis has brought Matthew Earnest down from NYC to direct this play (adapted from the original by Kirk Lynn); and the work’s energy, pageantry, and a lot of the humor are his.
Simmie Kastner, Burning Coal’s managing director, says that what they were given to work with was a very bare-bones script, that “allowed for a great deal of addition and embellishment that Earnest took immediate advantage of.” The result is a furiously paced production of furious people doing furiously manic things, all of which is narrated to us by The Narrator (Noelle Barnard) and Malcolm McLaren (Steven Roten, which by-the-bye is not pronounced “rotten”), a middle-class Londoner who is the self-proclaimed “creator” of Johnny (Lyden) Rotten and the Sex Pistols, the very first “band” to introduce Punk Rock to the world.
Using a mere six cast members, which leaves only four to create all the other characters in the play, Lipstick Traces runs through the 20th Century like a chain saw through butter, eliminating nearly everything one might consider “relevant” and focusing on the “Negation” movement, something amazingly similar to the Negationist Impulse, which first struck the world in about 1210 AD. The two ideas focus on the radical schism between what Life promises and what Life delivers. The title Lipstick Traces, for those of you not attuned to the jazz age, comes from the song “These Foolish Things,” (which may very well be a comment on the work itself) and the line “a cigarette, bearing lipstick traces … these foolish things remind me of you.” And since “the play is memory” (to steal from Tennessee Williams), it is most apropos.
The quartet that plays the rest of the populace of this play is a talented group that possesses high energy and the ability to take nonsense and make it seem important. Wesley Schultz plays both “dada death” (a silent creature in a skull mask) and the aforementioned Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols and the self-proclaimed “antichrist” of Punk Rock. Also playing dada death when Rotten is needed onstage is Trae Hicks, who expands his stable of characters with the dada artist Richard Huelsenbeck; and Glen Matlock, one of the Sex Pistols. Stephen LeTrent performs as a heretic; as Michael Mourre, a 22-year-old voice blowing against the (Holy Roman) Empire; as dada artist Tristan Tzara; and as Paul Cook, also of the band. And Brian Mullins plays Frenchman Guy Debord, leader of the Paris “Situationalists International” (SI); he also plays Hugo Ball and Steve Jones, last of the quartet of the Sex Pistols. Roten adds to his role of McLaren with a brief stint as London TV’s Bill Grundy, as the emcee interviews the group and a groupie by the name of Siouxsie Sioux (Barnard).
This sextet of cast members creates a world of anti-culture and a secret history of the 20th Century, telling us of things we’d never known existed and uproariously proclaiming that “Nothing is True, and Everything is Permitted. Act Autonomously.” Using the tenets of this anti-culture, the cast tells us that All the Important Events of the Second Half of the 20th Century come down to — after all irrelevance is dismissed — Monica Lewinski and Fidel Castro.
With lighting by Severn Clay, costumes by Maggie Clifton, and music designed by Punk Rock consultant Joseph Slawinski, this show is fast, furious, quick, clever, and outrageously funny. It is well worth the less-than-70-minutes it will take you to experience it.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Lipstick Traces Thursday-Saturday, April 14-16 and 21-23, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 17, and 24, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater (downstairs in the rear of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts), 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $10 each for groups of 10 or more. 919/834-4001 and http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets%20submit.htm [inactive 8/07]. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Rude Mechanicals: http://www.rudemechs.com/history/lipstick.html [inactive 8/04]. Lipstick Traces: http://www.lipsticktraces.org/ [inactive 5/05]. The Sex Pistols: http://www.sex-pistols.net/ and http://www.sex-pistols.co.uk/ [bith inactive 10/05].
And now for something completely different, Punk Rock category: Burning Coal Theatre Company will present the Southeastern premiere of Lipstick Traces, a theatrical extravaganza based on Rolling Stone Magazine reporter Greil Marcus’ classic 1989 book about the Sex Pistols and their spiritual forbearers, April 7-24 in the Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC. Subtitled “A Secret History of the 20th Century,” this show is an outrageous musical odyssey originally conceived and directed by Shawn Sides, adapted by Kirk Lynn, and created by the Rude Mechanicals of Austin, Texas. (Sides and Lynn are two of the Rude Mechs’ five co-producing artistic directors.)
Lipstick Traces had its world premiere Sept. 9, 1999 in Austin; and the musical made its Off-Broadway debut — produced by The Foundry Theatre — on May 2, 2001 at The Ohio Theatre.
In reviewing the world-premiere production, Robert Faires of The Austin Chronicle wrote, “Lipstick Traces gets us to hear the ragged, raging voice of punk in the nonsense phrases of turn-of-the-century Swiss artists and the ‘work-is-sin’ rantings of a German monk of the 1500’s. And it does it through a production that, remarkably enough, sings in that same voice. The scenes in this play are short, intense, irreverent, highly charged — qualities belonging to any good punk song.”
In reviewing the Off-Broadway production, Ben Brantley of The New York Times called Lipstick Traces “smart [and] spirited [with] moments that pulse with verve and ingenuity”; and Donald Lyons of the New York Post saluted the show as “a witty, rip-roaring, confusing, mad 75 minutes” and called it “stylish, dangerous fun.”
In The Village Voice, Jessica Winter added, “Devout popular-music scholar and anything-goes sociologist, Greil Marcus only connects — and when that fails, only projects. For him, one throwaway couplet in a radio hit can hopelessly tangle the threads of rock genealogy; one squall of feedback can summon ancestral specters from far-flung mediums, cultures, and vernaculars…. [P]erhaps his quintessential work, Lipstick Traces [sees] the Sex Pistols’ brief, riotous holiday in the sun [as] the starting line for stream-of-consciousness yo-yo anthropology. Johnny Rotten, et al., become collaborative players in Marcus’s totalizing, mutable history play; the Rude Mechs company literalize the conceit with a fast and furious staging of Lipstick Traces, a hilarious, unexpectedly haunted compression of the cult tome.”
New York director Matthew Earnest will stage Lipstick Traces for Burning Coal. Earnest, who is the founding artistic director of the Big Apple-based deep ellum ensemble (http://www.deepellum.org/), says, “I live in New York City, and knew many of the people who were involved with the production there, but for whatever reason I never got to see it. I didn’t read it until [Burning Coal artistic director] Jerry Davis offered me the show last year.”
He adds, “I thought [Lipstick Traces] was hilarious. I was drawn to its freewheeling, vigorously intellectual style and, also, the fact that it seemed so impossible to stage made me more determined to crack it open.… I love that [Lipstick Traces] is so rambunctious and unconventional. It’s really not a play at all, but more of a meta-theatrical history of Western Art for six performers.”
Earnest explains, “There really is no plot, but I’ll summarize the story … as best I can: The piece attempts to track the course of what’s known in contemporary art as the ‘negationist’ impulse or, in layman’s terms, the urge to create something new by first destroying the old system, burning down the house. We begin in Germany in 1534 with John of Leyden (Stephen LeTrent), a heretic who essentially says, ‘Never work.’ God’s creatures (humankind) are beautiful and shouldn’t be forced to work as worms in the dirt and, furthermore, who has made their desires sins?
“The tracking continues,” Earnest says, “with the Dada movement, which was founded in Switzerland in 1916 by Richard Huelsenbeck (Trae Hicks), Hugo Ball (Brian Mullins), Tristan Tzara (LeTrent), and others. The Dadaists, horrified by the unprecedented horror of [World War I], sought to find new meaning in life, as everything they believed about humanity had been decimated by the war. Their famous ‘sound poetry’ is recreated hilariously in our production: it’s over-the-top and a little scary, too.”
Earnest says, “Next is Guy Debord (Brian Mullins) and the Situationists, who were famous in the 1960s for spray painting the walls of Paris with slogans like, ‘Run! The old world is behind you!’ and ‘No Future!’ Malcolm McLaren (Steven Roten), who (as an art student in London) had studied and found a great affinity with Debord’s philosophies, will implement his revised form of Negationism when he forms the Punk Rock group, the Sex Pistols, in the 1970s. Amidst the deep economic troubles in London at the time, the shrieking voice of the Sex Pistols, featuring their mad vocalist Johnny Rotten (Wes Schultz), was a catharsis for a desperate, angry generation.
“All of the above is presented with a passionate, intellectual fervor by our Narrator (Noelle Barnard),” Earnest says.
In addition to director Matthew Earnest, the show’s creative team includes musical director Julie Florin, set designer Sonya Drum, lighting designer Severn Clay, costume designer Maggie Clifton, and sound designer and Punk Rock consultant Sloe.
Staging an off-the-wall musical such as Lipstick Traces presents special challenges to Earnest and the Burning Coal production team.
“We’ve really had to rise up to its audacity,” says Earnest, “You can’t do a ‘nice’ or ‘safe’ production of a play about the Sex Pistols, can you? So, we’ve had to roll up our sleeves and dare to be a little dangerous and to challenge our notions of what we and our audiences can handle.”
Earnest says the show’s set is a “post-Punk, neo-vaudeville series of curtains, all made with found scraps of fabric, in a forced perspective (smaller as they move upstage).” He adds that the lighting is “stark and astonishing, with footlights made out of vegetable cans”; and the show’s costumes are “made entirely with found garments — [the cast members] look like Punk tramps.”
Matthew Earnest urges Lipstick Traces ticket-buyers to buckle their seatbelts. “Get ready to have a wild, provocative, extremely fun time,” he says.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Lipstick Traces Thursday-Saturday, April 7-9, 14-16, and 21-23, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 10, 17, and 24, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater (downstairs in the rear of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts), 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except April 10th pay-what-you-can performance and $10 each for groups of 10 or more. Note: The April 9th performance will be audio described. 919/834-4001 and http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets%20submit.htm [inactive 8/07]. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Rude Mechanicals: http://www.rudemechs.com/history/lipstick.html [inactive 8/05]. Lipstick Traces: http://www.lipsticktraces.org/ [inactive 5/05]. The Sex Pistols: http://www.sex-pistols.net/ and http://www.sex-pistols.co.uk/ [bith inactive 10/05].