A popular form of theatre for autobiographical sketches, the one-person show provides an intimacy that that can’t be achieved by a large ensemble cast. Confined to a small space, each aspect of the production is minimally used for maximum effect. In this case, anything that isn’t working will taint the entire viewing experience.
The performance space at fortyfivedownstairs is ideal for a one-person show. Cut off from the world upstairs, intimate and highly versatile, the space is ideal for an arresting performance with a single cast member. Directed by Gary Abrahams, Resident Alien is the latest show that attempts to capture the ambiance of the space, providing viewers a glimpse into the later years of Quentin Crisp (here played by Paul Capsis).
Author, socialite, raconteur and actor, it’s no easy task to put a label on Quentin Crisp. He’s perhaps most known for being a very out and proud homosexual in London in the 1920s. Donning pink nail-polish, lipstick, coloured hair and vibrant suits, Crisp’s unconventional appearance regularly got him beaten up and ridiculed by passers-by, yet he refused to hide his eccentricities. Throughout his life he wrote books on personal style, acted small parts in a few films and ultimately wound up alone in a New York apartment where he refused to do any housework or wash dishes. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Crisp’s later life was his viciously homophobic remarks and refusal to support gay rights. He’s quoted as saying he doesn’t believe homosexuals should have rights, even supporting the idea that women should abort their pregnancies if there’s a high chance the child will turn out to be gay. He died at 90, and Resident Alien takes place around the time before his death.
Capsis is already on stage when the audience enters the space. A mop of grey hair protrudes up from the single bed where he lies asleep. Piles of black shredded paper are scattered around the stage, as well as stacks of paperback books. An antique dresser sits on one side of the stage and a stove and kitchen is behind the bed. Romanie Harper’s set design evokes a miserable apartment haunted by its staunchly eccentric inhabitant.
The play begins when Capsis rises, at first wearing a dressing gown, later half-naked with bandages hiding his eczema and finally the purple suit he was so well-known for. He potters about the apartment answering phone calls, expecting visitors and cooking some food. All the while he talks of past-experiences, gives his opinion on things and spouts many of his witty one-liners.
Capsis’ performance is an empathetic and accurate portrayal of the real Crisp. He manages the nasally drawl of Crisp’s speaking style as well as his slow and deliberate movements as he dresses himself with great care. Capsis embodies the character with a sense of ephemeral sadness, as his life is clearly coming to an end. He coughs deeply and shuffles slowly about the place, the deep creases in his face making him look like a damaged statue.
For all its technical merits and a strong performance, the play unfortunately doesn’t do much with its material. Eschewing the typical narrative of one-person biopics in which the character tells their life story, this production is instead a brief snapshot, providing a window into which viewers can gaze for a more intimate portrayal of the famous figure. It suffers from being quite aimless and offers a shallow portrayal of Crisp, simply showing a man who cared about his image and said many witty things.
The play also doesn’t do much with the infamous reputation Crisp garnered for himself in his later years. Any viewers looking for an examination into what happened to Crisp’s once-elegant and pleasing demeanour will instead get a rather milquetoast portrayal that skims over anything that might offend its audience. One emotionally charged scene towards the end, in which Rob Sowinski’s usually soft lighting turns a harsh red and the music plunges into hellish tones, sees Capsis deliver a bizarre sermon on the importance of personal style. Instead of being a cathartic denouement, the scene instead feels incongruous, given the lack of narrative and character development.
Resident Alien is a difficult show to recommend. At 40-something minutes, it doesn’t give itself time to go anywhere, but even if it were longer, the content doesn’t suggest it was actually headed towards anything. Despite a strong performance from its lead and an impressive set design, Abraham’s production lacks the narrative drive possessed by more successful one-person autobiographies like Phil Ormsby’s Drowning in Veronica Lake. A good night for a few laughs and some interesting titbits, but little else is on offer.