by Carole Di Tosti)
The Surrender, currently enjoying its American premiere at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, is a solo performance piece adapted for the stage by Isabelle Stoffel and Toni Bentley and directed by Zishan Ugurlu. Before it evolved to this stage version, The Surrender, An Erotic Memoir by Toni Bentley was named one of the Best Books of 2004 by Publishers Weekly. It also received recognition as one of the 100 Notable Books of the year by The New York Times. Translated into 18 languages, Bentley’s sensual, funny and clever memoir has been referenced amongst the works of writers like D.H. Lawrence, Normal Mailer, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. All were considered groundbreaking authors, in part because their writings convey elements and passages of physical engagement and passionate, sensual eroticism. They expose the “gritty” realities of our sexual natures with expressions that some may find uncomfortable to discuss or reference in their own lives. And they accomplished this with exceptional writing.
Like the book, Bentley’s and Stoffel’s adaptation is an unflinching confessional with no restraining moments. It is one of the most articulate of intimate, humorous and personal explorations of a woman’s sexual balances and imbalances. Like a beautiful flower relaxing its petals, the play is an evocative and brave exposé of the gradual abandonment of personal, soulful bonds toward surrendering self through the vehicle of sex. During her journey the character experiences the depths and heights of herself through physical pleasure and pain as she seeks and achieves spiritual transcendence through sexual experience, specifically in the ecstasy and torture of sodomy.
The Surrender may not be for everyone with its beauty and irreverent sexual language. This is no clinical Kinsey report noting penises and vaginas with objective, cold narration into a tape recorder. It is an unadulterated voluptuary of sensuality. It uses the most intimate of love terms for sexual organs, delivered live by a woman who has come to understand and appreciate her physical/mental limits of enjoyment and hurt. Depending upon one’s proclivities, some may find her explanations pretentious. They may think her philosophical discussion as mere intellectual presumption, for she glorifies and rationalizes the benefits of masochistic excess as refining and heightening one’s wisdom curve.
Nevertheless, one fact about this play is undeniable: Bentley is an exquisite writer. Her fearless voice echoing through the character (magnificently enacted by Laura Campbell) resounds with power, irony and confidence as she relates in flashback the journey that led her to stand before us. Though it is not an easy action standing there, she does so with the hope of empowering us (men and women) to embrace our own limits of self and transcend them.
Whether one is able to receive or acknowledge the character’s journey, as she legitimizes it, will determine one’s ability to think about and sift through the array of tropes and themes of sexual politics in this work. If one cannot receive the key part of her story, perhaps it is a minor flaw of the work. Her unnamed character warns us of this when at the beginning of the play she says, “Don’t miss the message and be distracted by the obscenity of my act.” If members of the audience are themselves fighting with their own internal restrictions and soul bondages, then this will encumber their understanding of the play’s themes and what Bentley is attempting to achieve.
However, so be it. The playwright does not present her life with “hat in hand,” seeking approval. She is discussing her experiences and clarifying them to and for herself. Whether one can go along into the heavens and understand her bliss and hell, or tune it out because one thinks rationality has been breached, doesn’t matter. The character is unapologetic. She is frank. That is part of what she has learned to be as a result of her “surrender” (to a particular man and by degrees to all aspects of herself).
Campbell has risen to the occasion in portraying Bentley’s unabashed representation, knocking it out of the park. Here she is; here is her testimony. Believe it, like it, don’t believe it. The audience matters in the equation only to the point that perhaps we may identify, empathize or understand. If we don’t, we don’t even have to respect her experience. Our respect or lack of it doesn’t matter, after all, because what she did, she has done for her own edification, not ours. And she will offer it to us for our edification if we are able to receive what she says and get past her “act.”
The direction at times could have been more acute, the costume more suggestive, but despite this, Campbell’s rendering is spellbinding. Through her the character’s admitted contradictions, including the femininity and masculinity of self, are made clear. The audience, men and women of various ages, were rapt and silent, engaged in the moment-to-moment journey which Campbell makes vital and palpable. One reason why Campbell succeeds is that she embraces the character without judgment and becomes her. In becoming the unnamed woman, she shows a prototype of possibility for all women. The possibility is that a woman may free herself from the conceptions of sexual womanhood which the culture has defined for her and even imprisoned her in.
Campbell beautifully leads us to the message. The way the unnamed character achieves this freedom is to first surrender to wherever her self takes her via sexual experience: through the fear and the pain to the bliss and supreme pleasure, grief and torment. After the experiences end, she discovers she is someone else. She has no need to ever return to the past sexual addictions. She is free. In this newness is a strength to abjure the cultural clichés and definitions imposed by others and previously imposed by herself. In this newness she is able to create her own destiny as a freed soul. In this newness she is able to give testimony of her experience, and perhaps she might be able to help others become free. With this transformation, the character has achieved a beautiful alchemy. She has transmogrified the dross of an “obscene act” into an act of creation. And this act of creation may bring about a noble end after all.
The Surrender will be at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row until February 2.