Carnal Letters: UMS's No Safety Net series closed with two Rachel Mars plays that explore the expression of desire
If there’s one common thematic thread between British theater artist Rachel Mars’ two shows, Our Carnal Hearts and Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters, it’s desire and the ways in which it’s expressed.
Both shows wrapped up UMS’s No Safety Net event series with Our Carnal Hearts quickly assuming the feel of a darkly comedic, secular church service complete with a small choir on a bare stage. It takes envy as its focus and explores how our ego reflexively ties itself in knots when a peer or loved one succeeds.
Mars even has the audience say, in unison, “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!” in the same fake-enthusiastic tone we’ve all employed at one time or another in the interest of appearing like an adult instead of a petulant child.
Presented in the round, Our Carnal Hearts features a different singer—Rhiannon Armstrong, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, Kelly Burke, and Louise Mothersole—seated in the middle front row of each side. It also combines cheeky musical asides composed and arranged by Mothersole, short audience interactions, and storytelling to plumb the question: why does another’s triumph inevitably make us feel small or less than?
Mars tries to answer that question by interspersing her songs and exchanges with a story about a fairy who arrives and offers you one wish. But there’s a catch: whatever you wish for, your neighbor will receive the same, but double.
Suddenly, the initial pull to wish for fame, power, and money gets turned inside out, becoming instead a wish for a physical malady or a humiliation; and lighting designer Anna Barrett visually underscores these dark turns, giving the “fairy tale” a ghost-story feel.
And there is an apt, surprising little reversal at the hourlong show’s end. Yet I’ll confess that I left the Arthur Miller Theatre feeling unsatisfied, as if I came for a meal and found a plate of appetizers. No matter how good they taste, they aren’t quite enough to fill you up.
Mars’ show Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters, meanwhile, focuses on sexual desire, and is presented with nothing more than a writing desk in one corner and a two-drawer cabinet, from which Mars pulls out the letters she reads, in another corner. It starts with a letter that’s as unabashedly bracing and graphic as the show’s title.
The 1908 missive, from James Joyce to his wife, Nora Barnacle, goes into great, ardent detail about James’ hunger for anal sex, Barnacle’s corresponding flatulence, and, well, a myriad of other carnal, erotic acts.
Mars reads James’ words with the emphatic, unapologetic urgency that James’ tone suggests, then she silently shares, projected on a screen, a contemporary text that conveys sexual desire, too, but inevitably feels paltry in comparison.
This pattern repeats throughout the hourlong, intimately lit show by lighting designer Alex Fernandes and integrating a broad variety of love/lust letters penned by Mozart, Eleanor Roosevelt (to female journalist Lorena Hickok instead of Franklin), Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Radclyffe Hall, Charles Bukowski, Marcel Proust, and a monk called Brother Augustine.
The sexts, meanwhile, offer pithy moments of humor amid their erotic yearnings: details about a cat vomiting twice; a request to put on the kettle; a confession that the recipient is currently doing something as unsexy as eating crackers.
Though hilarious, the comparison inevitably feels a bit unfair. In any age, we communicate in the most efficient and dependable way available to us, and for better or worse (Mars’ show title votes for “worse”), we live in the age of texting.
And we’re all just fumbling to convey our desires through whatever means available to us.
It’s clearly no small task. For one of the takeaways of Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters is the near-impossibility of expressing bodily desires in words. The attempts to do so, despite the limitations of language, are often beautiful and heartbreaking and funny and bizarre.
And one can’t help but note how wildly different the attempts are from each other, with each letter-writer seeking understanding through the prism of their own identity. Mars yells Bukowski’s letter as if it’s written in all-caps (perhaps it was?) while Georgia O’Keeffe’s and Frida Kahlo’s letters are as lush and poetic (if no less erotically urgent) as you’d expect, given their artistic styles.
Mozart’s consists of a silly, scatological poem, while the monk’s letter sadly conveys a love that really couldn’t speak its name, given that the young recipient’s mother intercepted it and shared it with the local press. (Mars shares brief commentary about each letter on a second screen during the show.)
Plus, although Barnacle’s love letters to Joyce no longer survive, Mars’ show imagines what one may have said, courtesy of Lesley Ewen, who wrote and read the letter via a recording.
The audience, by show’s end, is left to reflect on how the capacious conventions of letter-writing, and the inevitable, almost painful delay of its delivery, dictated that lovers, in earlier times, had little choice but to commit to a deep, sometimes disorienting dive into their desires. They had to fight and struggle with their words to communicate what they felt so electrically in their bodies.
This, of course, stands in stark contrast to “U up?”
Though the erotic impulse remains the same, Mars argues, there was a distinctly tragic and human beauty in these letter-writers’ attempts to be fully understood.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.