“The Cut” is exactly the sort of show that fringe theater exists for. A theatrical adaptation by Seattle playwright Dustin Engstom of a book-length memoir by Dennis Milam Bensie, it is an exploration of the painful and particular life of a man obsessed by a fetish. Tracking the disintegration and ultimate reintegration of one isolated man's life, it is sexually and autobiographically frank, often disturbing due to the abuse suffered by the character, Derick, at the hands of his family, friends and “relationships” and compelling in its ability to maneuver us into this particular blind alley, in which everything becomes secondary to satisfying a specific personal passion.
That, in this case, it is the sexual stimulation and gratification that Derick derives from the act of cutting men's hair is, ironically, not important. At least, it should not be. In order for this play to be significant beyond a purely individual life story, it must tell us something about how this man's desire and obsession and loss of perspective on an entire life as a result of his complete focus on a single element of that life connects to our own experience, to our own lives. That is accomplished in plays like “I am My Own Wife” and Martin Moran’s one-man show, “The Tricky Part”.
Unfortunately, this earnest production, well directed by Gary Zinter, never really transcends its idiosyncratic detail, never overcomes being his story to become our story. The result is memoir in its most restrictive and reductive form, the specifics of an individual, albeit unusual, life. The terrible details of a childhood rape, his father’s disapproving and coercive expectations, the discovery of his exhilaration and emotional freedom in the act of cutting a man’s hair, and his descent into transient relationships either traded cheaply or purchased in the sexual marketplace (either his exploitation of others or theirs of him), make for a sad, but not especially illuminating story. Because this man’s sexual obsession leads him into such seedy, dehumanizing and profoundly unsatisfying areas, the audience is left to feel more sympathy for Derrick than empathy.
That is certainly not the result of the performances by this solid and deeply invested cast. As Derick, Michael LaDell Harris is a quite ordinary man, and his internal life, the life ruled by his fetish and his lifelong companion, a personified doll named Stefeny, is quite simply the norm, at least for him. Harris is likable and unassuming, and very early on we only want some satisfaction and acceptance for Derick. Monica Wulzen, as Stefeny, gives the doll all the variety of personas an object of imagination could have, but also brings a touching connection between herself and Derick, regardless of what is going on in his life. While the rest of the cast was balanced, I thought Scott Shoemaker was outstanding as Derick’s devoted friend, confidant and spiritual sister, Jake. That he was equally capable of portraying Derick’s insensitive and destructive father was a compliment to his acting ability.
I don’t think “The Cut” is a show that will ever appeal to a broad audience, nor should it. The brief nudity and sexual violence are not so extreme as to put off anyone already attracted to this show. The fact that Derick is homosexual is utterly irrelevant, except as it further alienates him from feeling like he belongs to any sort of accepting community, and that is equally true within his gay context as it is within a hetero context. What will limit this show to small venues, like Open Circle Theatre, is that it is a small show meant for those who want to look very closely at someone’s inner life. The honesty of this intimate and personal revelation of one man’s experience is meant for theatregoers willing to travel down a much less-traveled road in order to understand how this man arrived at an understanding of himself. I only wish it could have expanded to show us how that journey can apply to better understanding ourselves.