Capital Fringe 2015 Review: Brothel

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Playwright Isa Seyran has told forthrightly the origin story of Brothel: Reading about the extreme gender imbalance of men to women in North Dakota resulting from an oil boom thanks to fracking, Seyran was inspired to write a play set in an imaginary small-scale legal brothel there that would supply the men with fucking. Seyran claims no first-hand knowledge of prostitution in North Dakota—where in fact it is criminalized, for both buyer and seller—though he does tell of personal familiarity with the operation of legal brothels in his native Turkey (presumably not as a service provider).

Watching the resulting six-character play—whose gender equipoise features one pimp, one john, one male health inspector, and three women in prostitution—I found myself reminded of Bertholt Brecht, who made up from whole cloth a play set in a 1930s Chicago peopled with mobsters and gangsters, although he had not yet set foot outside Europe. Brecht did so (in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory about the rise of Hitler) with a political purpose and viewpoint; he was not writing fourth-wall naturalism. Thus as I watched Seyran’s script play out, in a quite Fringe-servicable production that he himself directed, I kept listening to his text not for verisimilitude (his characters bear virtually no relationship to the reality of their roles in the actual sex industry) but for Seyran’s purpose and point of  view.

I cannot say that I discerned any such, other than a prostitution proponent’s propensity to justify the buying and selling of bodies for sex with a marketplace, supply-and-demand argument that pivots on phallic imperative. In his program note he quotes Hal, his pimp character, saying, “It is not my fault that God created men, gave them penises and put this unstoppable desire in them to put their penises into whatever hole they can find.”  Variants of that perspective recur throughout, always taken at face value, notably given voice by each of the female characters (“Pussy is the best currency in human civilization,” says Val at one point. Su, who is an Asian imigrant, translates the word prostitution in her homeland as “happiness providing” and comes to her career in this country with a diploma from a school for sex workers, which Hal at one point argues there should be in the U.S.).

If Seyran had something more in mind than pro-prostitution agit prop, this reviewer could not fathom what it was. Advance promotion for the show promised, in Sevran’s words, “a very serious drama with some heavy themes and undertones” and, in the press release’s words, “a new play that explores the question of what is at the deepest core of men and women…an unexacting [sic] look at human nature.” What I perceived instead was an awkwardly structured script that required the actors to lurch without perceptible motivation or thematic unity from speech to speech and scene to scene. For instance there’s a sudden catfight that erupts out of nowhere between the older Val, who has been pimped by Hal for many years (loyally, we are given to understand), and a new arrival, the younger, more kink-friendly Rosa, whom Hal wants to pimp as well. Abruptly Hal becomes the caring and consoling referee between two warring whores. Early on Hal’s character is established as that of a pimp with a heart of gold (hey, this is theater, where anything can happen), yet later Hal seriously contemplates pimping out his wife, who is mother of his two young children and pregnant with a third.

To their credit the actors gave this muddle of a script a good go, particularly Ned Read as Hal, who deserves a better role in a better play, and Pimmie Juntranggur as Su, who bursts on stage with formidable energy and absconds with her scene. Also in the cast were Adrian Iglesias as George the health inspector, whose new-to-the-job ineptness had charm; Sally Roffman as aging hooker Val, who found touching poignance in the part; Brian Lewadowski as Val’s favorite customer, Isaac, who played nice guy credibly if improbably; and Lauren Patton as Rosa, who did sexpot spitfire just fine.

Running Time: One hour 25 minutes with no intermission.

Brothel plays through July 25, 2015, at Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Ave NE Washington, DC 20002. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

Read the preview article on DCMetroTheaterArts.