Monday, June 26, 2017

Conrad Alexandrowicz: The Wines of Tuscany

Two decades after the “cocktail” transformed HIV-AIDS into a manageable long-term condition--for those who respond to the drugs, and who can afford and have access to treatment--AIDS memoir has slipped from the central place it held in gay literature during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Many of those works--in turns searing, elegiac, angry, urgent, tender--were the crucibles in which a generation of queer men refined the hard-won truths of their spiritual lives.

Among the most moving works for theatre that came out of the crisis was Victoria-based playwright Conrad Alexandrowicz’s The Wines of Tuscany (1996).  

For me, the opening monologue, in which Ben narrates his unashamedly sexualized recurring dream of Christ’s Passion, is a courageous assertion of the non-dualtiy of flesh and spirit. In this, it stands beside the homoerotic devotional imagery of the photographs of John Dugdale and of Oscar Wolfman, beside Keith Haring’s AIDS altarpiece at the Episcopal cathedrals of New York and San Francisco, beside Terrence McNally’s reimagining of the life of a queer white-trash Texan Christ in his play Corpus Christi. 

By happy circumstance, I had a chance to unleash my inner groupie in admiration for his work when I found myself introduced to Alexandowicz in a Toronto museum last month. He kindly agreed to share here some words of introduction to the play, along with Ben’s opening and closing speeches.



This play is a one-act physical-theatre duet for male performers about memory, pleasure, and loss. It is also about wine, food, architecture, sex and opera. The play is set to a score composed of original material as well as excerpts from operas by Verdi and Mozart, and uses dialogue, movement and song to convey its narrative. 

The piece is essentially a man's reminiscence of the last trip to Italy taken by himself and his lover, who has since died of AIDS. Long-time opera- and wine-lovers, the two make one more tour through Tuscany in search of the ultimate red wine experience. As his lover's illnesses worsen, the search becomes more desperate, and wine comes to represent a magical substance that can provide an aesthetic experience so powerful that it is an elixir of life. The journey is therefore about the quest to prove that beauty, like love, is stronger than death. 

The Wines of Tuscany originated at Vancouver's New Play Festival and was subsequently produced twice more in that city. It then toured to Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Toronto, where it ran for six weeks at the Tarragon Theatre. It has won numerous awards.

A one-act dance-theatre duet for male performers

[Setting: A large painted backdrop portrays a composite of typical elements of Italian high Renaissance architecture. . . . There is a living room setting downstage right, a couch and carved chest with a wine bottle and glass. . . . The lights come up on the last crashing measures of La Traviata: Violetta dies of consumption as Alfredo, his father, the doctor and the maid all howl in anguish. The chords fade away as Ben is discovered on the couch down right. He sits up, pours a taste of Il Grigio da San Felice, Riserva 1990, sniffs the bouquet, tastes it, and then begins to address the audience]


BEN: I had the dream again. [Music: the Preludio from La Traviata]  Under a black sky, stinking of sulphur, promising the rains of doom, I see the crucified Christ twisting like an animal impaled alive on a spit. He's been stripped of the usual ragged loincloth; he has a huge, raging erection. [Edward stands and begins to move]   He's pumping the air with his pelvis. Suddenly he's coming... wildly, magnificently, endlessly. This shower of cum is bestowed over the assembled multitudes below, who receive it into their hands like fallen gold, ecstatically; a magic transforming fluid that has the power to heal and restore. I understand that this Christ was sent from the hand of God the Father to heal the world, and he's been punished for it. And God's in his heaven, weeping as gods sometimes do when they can do nothing to help. So his son does the only thing left in his power: he performs this magnificent last miracle, this stupendous, epic orgasm, generated from the superhuman pain of his all-too-human tormented body. From his seed will grow clear sight, calm thinking, the benefit of the doubt. The hand extended to the one who calls out, palm open, no questions asked.
The dream changes, exactly the same way, every time. He appears. [Ben crosses to Edward. They variously dance, slide, roll and run together throughout the rest of the speech]  His eyes like chocolate truffles, his shiny, springy hair; his shapely hands. It's him alright, it's actually him! I gasp, with amazement, with horror even. Then I begin to weep. And then I get hard, just like always: I'd only to look at him and I'd get hard. I'd think of him on the bus or subway, and get a lump in my jeans. Very embarrassing before getting off: the old ladies sitting with their shopping, their eyes at crotch level.
In this dream we're on a train travelling north to Siena. The idea is to get away from Rome as soon as possible. I love the sprawling mess of this city; these many cities from different ages piled together, but he finds it oppressive, and appalling, especially the traffic, which seems to be lethal to everything that walks the earth. You think they're actually trying to run you over, but when you wade out into the river of FIATS in front of the Victor Emmanuel monument, they all slow down just enough so you can cross; they part like the Red Sea did for Moses and the children of Israel. It's a miracle: what better place to experience a miracle than the Eternal City? He always said they only avoid killing pedestrians because of the inconvenience and expense of lawsuits. [Edward brings the chairs to centre stage. Train scene] 

We're on this train, going to Chianti, for the wines of course, and I'm gazing out of the window at the parade of hill towns passing by, rosy stone in the morning sun, each with its immaculate bell-tower gravely lifting its head toward the heaven of Giotto and Palestrina. He always let me have the window seat. I turn to my right, and there he is. I turn to my right, and there he is. I turn to my right... [Edward falls in slow motion to the floor]  Ah, tu fosti il primo oggetto che sinor fedel amai, e tu l'ultimo sarai ch'abbia nido in questo cor.

SCENE 18 [Ben moves to the side of the couch]
BEN: He fell. The stairs of the pensione. All the way down. And sustained multiple fractures in his left leg because his bones were so weak. We made it to Rome, but they wouldn't let us on the plane. By then he had pneumonia again. If you're that sick they won't let you. It's a long flight, the liability and all that. So, he's still there. Where he always wanted to be. He'll never leave now. It was worth it: he was lucky enough to find out.

I want to be saved. I go to bed at night repeating those words to myself like an old Italiana telling her rosary. “Somebody save me, somebody take me home.” But nothing can save us, certainly no Chianti Classico, or Vino nobile or Brunello. And no one is coming to take us home. This is it: we've arrived. There's only one other place to go. You pay the boatman a small fee, because there's no end to tipping, no matter what, and if you're lucky, he'll get you there quickly. Plague has come before. It comes again. And the water of life can do nothing in the face of it.

In my dream the crucified Christ comes down from the cross. The look in his eyes is infinitely sad. He shuffles towards me with his hands extended in front of him. The wounds are still bleeding, but, there's music coming from them. You take another sip of the best stuff you've brought back from your trip, and listen. It's the most beautiful sound you've ever heard! 

[Music: The sublime trio “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan Tutte. Ben simply sits and listens to the music, then pours another glass of wine, stands, toasts and drinks, all in slow motion. He sits down, then lies along the couch, one arm framing his head, as the lighting produces a complex sunset effect timed to the music. Long fade to black]  

(Cast photo from the Tarragon Theatre production of 1997)

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