Precocious kids have always wondered about sex before their folks are willing to clue them in, we suppose. But in Edwardian times, apparently, young women could be considered of “marriageable” age and still be utterly clueless about what exactly transpires on the wedding night. To the rescue: Lytton Strachey composed Ermyntrude and Esmeralda, a little novella in which the eponymous heroines, in a series of breathless letters, try to work it all out. Transformed into a play by Hunter Kaczorowski at the Yale Cabaret, E & E entertains—and might even make you blush! (Indeed the novella, written in 1913, didn’t see the light of day till 1969—when the lifting of illegality for same-sex liaisons should have made its enlightened acceptance of homosexual sex acceptable.) Ermyntrude is played by Sophie von Haselberg with a steely practicality in her eye: she’s after the gory details about what she calls “pussy-cats” and “bow-wows”—the genitalia of females and males, respectively—and what happens when they “pout” for one another. Esmeralda, played with gleeful girlishness by Ceci Fernandez, is more interested in what those pouting pets have to do with love. And, since no one has quite worked that out to date, E & E is engagingly enlightening.
The back and forth “entre nous” epistles of the duo are illustrated from time to time by shadow puppetry in little framed spaces on the back wall (manipulated by Christopher Ash, Soule Golden, and Carmen Martinez; designed by Kaczorowski). Depending on where you might be sitting in the packed Cab, you may get the full effect of these little figurines or not—they seem a bit too small to make the kind of visual impression they may be intended to achieve—but they are certainly well-done and evocative of the kind of picture-book politesse that our heroines are endeavoring to delve beneath. Until, of course, a rather rampant bow-wow vigorously mounts a fulsome feline…
The space (Kate Noll, Scenic) and costumes (Seth Bodie), along with lighting (Solomon Weisbard) and sound/music (Steve Brush) all contribute considerably to the gentility of the evening. And that’s important to make the quaintness of the young ladies’ questionings seem apropos. Along the way, E & E espy surprising developments—such as a passionate embrace between Esmeralda’s brother Godfrey and his male instructor (“which buttons were undone?” Ermyntrude presses her), to say nothing of Ermyntrude’s exciting flirtation with the new footman Henry, which leads to ecstatic expressions emoted with an exuberant twinkle by von Haselberg.
As Esmeralda, Ceci Fernandez is inestimable and explosive; she glows and gloats and free associates and turns away one would-be betrothed (the Dean, who cannot countenance her curiosity about Godfrey) only to find another—the dashing Major. Meanwhile, Ermyntrude, like Godfrey, faces a comeuppance for her pert pursuit of carnal knowledge across class lines. Heaven forfend!
In the end, as so often happens, the teens may be seen to be following different paths, though we—like them—may wait breathlessly the epistles depicting Ermyntrude’s adventures in sexy-sounding Saxony and Esemeralda’s nuptial discoveries. All-in-all, Ermyntrude and Esmeralda is ebullient entertainment.
Ermyntrude & Esmeralda A Naughty Puppet Play Based on the novella by Lytton Strachey Directed and Adapted by Hunter Kaczorowski
Puppet Design: Hunter Kaczorowski; Dramaturgy: Emily Reilly; Scenic Design: Kate Noll; Costume Design: Seth Bodie; Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Design & Original Music: Steve Brush; Stage Manager: Sonja Thorson; Technical Director: Lee O’Reilly; Assistant Technical Director: Joey Moro; Producer: Sarah Williams; Puppetry Captain: Carmen Martinez
The Yale Cabaret February 14-16, 2013