Los Angeles Theater Review: BILL & JOAN (Sacred Fools Theater Company)

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by Paul Birchall on February 12, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


It was the shot heard round the countercultural world – the Big Bang of the Beats, as it were.

At a party one night in Mexico City in 1951, writer William Burroughs drunkenly talked his wife Joan Vollmer into standing against the wall with a water glass on her head while he fired a gun at her.  His ostensible purpose was to imitate the daring marksmanship of William Tell, who could easily put a bulls-eye through an apple perched on someone’s head.  Alas, Burroughs, addled with heroin addiction and general drunkenness and lunacy, was no William Tell.  Joan was shot in the head and died shortly thereafter.

Betsy Moore as Joan Vollmer and Curt Bonnem as William S. Burroughs

In his book Queer, Burroughs has noted that he would not have been successful as a writer without Joan’s death: He said, “(The death) brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice but to write myself out.”  This, of course, is probably of little comfort to the dead Ms. Vollmer, shot between the eyes, but there you are.

Playwright Jon Bastian’s excellent play centers on this appalling incident, drifting back and forth in time as a sort of mystery, examining the reasons and underpinnings behind Burroughs murder of Vollmer (which, truthfully, it is).  The motivations and events, examined and tossed about like pigs in a blanket, craft a play that’s part biography, part horror tale, and part affecting psycho-drama.

Betsy Moore as Joan Vollmer, Donnelle Fuller as Willy Lee, and Curt Bonnem as William S. Burroughs in “Bill & Joan” at Sacred Fools Theater Company.

Opening with a near-whispered line from Betsy Moore’s thoroughly excellent Joan Vollmer–who mutters, “Nothing is true; Everything is permitted” before putting the glass on her head–the drama shifts and dances.  The lean, edgy Burroughs (Curt Bonnem), assaying his character with an odd innocence that nevertheless does not contradict a decidedly spooky, deviated undercurrent, is hauled off to a Mexican hoosegow, where he’s given the Good Cop / Bad Cop treatment by a pair of homicide detectives–the blustery Kiki (Richard Azurdia) and the brooding, but darkly handsome Tito (Alexander Matute).

Curt Bonnem as William S. Burroughs in “Bill & Joan” at Sacred Fools Theater Company.

Burroughs meets Vollmer at a Manhattan party, and tries to disgust her with some of his darkly sexual verse, but, in the spirit of true perviness, the seamy language only encourages her to fall in love with him.  Before long, Burroughs is addicted to heroin and Vollner is hopped up on booze and speed, both partners cheating on each other with other men.  But they’re together, and otherwise it’s the perfect marriage!  At least, until Burroughs and Vollmer head to Texas briefly to “dry out” and then wind up back on their respective drugs in Mexico City, where all things coalesce to the moment of the fatal shooting.

Donnelle Fuller, Lauren Campedelli, Matt Valle, Curt Bonnem, Will McMichael and Bart Tangredi in “Bill & Joan” at Sacred Fools Theater Company.

Throughout his life, Burroughs is haunted by several figures who might best be called demons. There’s a hot young stud (Matt Valle) who appears to represent the homosexual side of Burroughs’ personality, and a croaking, child-like monster (Donnelle Fuller) symbolizing his heroin addiction.  There’s also a sultry maiden (Lauren Campedelli) who seems to be… well, death, I suppose, since she cackles happily whenever something awful happens to Vollmer.

Donnelle Fuller, Curt Bonnem and Bart Tangredi in “Bill & Joan” at Sacred Fools Theater Company.

Director Diana Wyenn’s intense and unexpectedly touching production achieves what you’d expect would be impossible; you come away with absolute sympathy for this pair of dueling, drug-addled, married disasters.  It sometimes seems that Bastian’s text opts for the explanation that Burroughs was on some level plotting to kill Vollmer, but the writing leaves lusciously ambiguous whether the shooting itself was murder, drug-fueled madness, or one of those great historical incidents that exceeds its reality to become a metaphor for art and destruction.

As the ill-fated Vollmer, Moore is a bit of an inspiration.  Moore’s portrayal has a girlish cheerfulness, even when suffering the angst and rage of discovering her beloved is schtupping around the town with male hustlers.  Her face is unusually expressive:  She looks like she is smiling even when she’s in despair, and this adds a potent poignancy to the scene in which she goes to her doom.

Richard Azurdia and Curt Bonnem in “Bill & Joan” at Sacred Fools Theater Company.

Bonnem’s complex turn slides artfully along the razor’s edge suggesting that his character might be either a genius or merely a debauched loon.  There’s the sense of a man who’s tormented by the demons of his lusts and appetites, and is often helpless before them, particularly when it turns out he sort of likes his drugs and his sexuality.  Having seen Bonnem in several shows at Sacred Fools, mostly playing an identical effete character, it’s a pleasure to see him assay a role that’s this subtle and arch, richly textured, and multi-dimensionally fascinating.

Will McMichael, Curt Bonnem. Donnelle Fuller, Lauren Campedelli and Matt Valle in “Bill & Joan” at Sacred Fools Theater Company.

Many tapes of Burroughs talking or reading his works exist:  He has a great cameo in the movie Drugstore Cowboy, and his rendition of Laurie Anderson’s “Mister Heartbreak” on her album of the same name is nothing but astonishing.  Bonnem hits the old poet’s idiosyncratic, gravel-and-rat poison-filled vocalizations perfectly, while also capturing a vitality and power that’s sometimes more than slightly disturbing.

Supporting performances are intriguing as well, most noticeably Valle as Burrough’s hustler lover (and the ghostly demon of lust), and Azurdia and Matute as the cop partners (with Matute demonstrating an unexpected burst of eerie sexuality in his role).

photos by Jessica Sherman

Bill & Joan
Sacred Fools Theater Company
660 N. Heliotrope Dr.
scheduled to end on March 1, 2014
for tickets, call (310) 281-8337 or visit www.SacredFools.org

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