By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Any show that opens with a brief but discomfitingly realistic porn film, complete with the flap-flap-flap sound of a rickety movie projector and grunts and sighs that don't match the performers' mouths, is bound to cause the ears of theatergoers' non-theatergoing friends to perk up when the subject comes up. And when you imbue all the titillation in Patty Diphusa with an actor as forcefully and poignantly honest as Christina Vela, vulgar camp is staked resolutely to the ground. Ticket buyers are sheltered from cheap shock value by her refusal to condescend to an X-rated cartoon character.
Unfortunately, director Mark Farr, who with John Flores adapted writer-director Pedro Almodovar's collection of stories about Patty's Madrid misadventures, was perhaps too convinced of Vela's abilities to impose much structure on the original Spanish magazine columns. The published American edition of the tales, The Patty Diphusa Stories and Other Writings, contained chapter heads--"Life Imitates Porno," "This Time I Don't Get Laid," "Cops Bum Me Out," and "Lovers' Spat in a Disco John"--that signaled to readers the disjointed, stream-of-consciousness (and drugged-out) nature of our heroine's anecdotes. As a stage piece, Patty Diphusa reflects this stop-start-stop-start rhythm, since Farr, as both writer and director, has failed to locate an arc of action in these incidents. While the ambition to create some kind of hybrid stage animal custom-made for Vela is obvious, this production is more distinguished by what it lacks than the various elements it aspires to assemble. What Farr has realized for the theater doesn't quite develop as a play or a one-woman show.
Oddly, as much as I've ranted about the superior experience of small theater over operatic comedy and drama, I found the pared-down Trinity River Arts Center to be too intimate. Vela has no problem projecting, and Patty Diphusa is a character who needs a bit more distance between herself and the audience, precisely so that projection--a performer grappling with and conquering a cavernous space so she can stand in it as tall as a multiplex star--will take place, and Patty can seem truly mythic in her smutty meanderings through urban Spanish clubs and alleys. With steep rows of audience members looking down on a small plot of stage where the action transpires, Diphusa is diminished to the garden-variety disco trollop that Almodovar and Farr clearly wanted to raise to moon-goddess heights.
Still, you could do worse than spend two hours watching Vela in a sex comedy. For all its narrative sloppiness, I, Patty Diphusa does make animal promiscuity in the age of AIDS as deliciously, innocently "sinful" as devouring a pint of hazelnut gelato. Vela's ability to convey half-sincere regret at her appetites, to tinker with the notion of redemption even as the sins themselves are such pure expressions of pleasure, gives Patty the tenderness she needs. The best episodes here are baubles that, even if they'd be more functional strung together as a necklace, still glitter in your palm. Patty, craving stability, is taken home to meet the mother (Mark O'Dell) of her bourgeois young boyfriend (Zaron White) and mistaken for a transsexual. At the close of the show, a video segment lifts another chapter from the Diphusa collection, "I, Patty, Try to Get to Know Myself Through My Author"--Patty interviews Almodovar in a Barbara Walters-style sit-down. The one-joke premise that essentially fuels I, Patty Diphusa--the title character is a woman with a man's hypersexual cravings--gets fleshed out when the show turns Patty inside out and we, astonished, discover Almodovar, also played by Vela, with a taciturn masculinity that eerily outstrips the infamous real-life filmmaker. This genderfuck feat fired by Vela's versatility is the production's most satisfying lay.