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Underneath the Skin

John Kelly in his performance piece about the remarkable life of Samuel M. Steward who was a college professor, a tattoo artist, a pornographer, an unofficial collaborator at the Kinsey Institute and a sexual renegade.

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John Kelly as Samuel Steward in his “Underneath the Skin” at La MaMa (Photo credit: Bronwen Sharp for La MaMa)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Famed performance artist John Kelly has brought his latest show, Underneath the Skin, to La MaMa, subtitled “A Penetrative Portrayal of a Queer Giant Based on the life and work of Samuel Steward 1909-1993.” Steward had a remarkable life in the first three-quarters of the 20th century as a college professor, a tattoo artist, a pornographer, an unofficial collaborator at the Kinsey Institute and a sexual renegade. He was also a friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Thomas Mann, André Gide, had trysts with Rudolph Valentino and Lord Alfred Douglas, and became the lover of Thornton Wilder. Underneath the Skin is a fascinating and engrossing blend of theater, dance, video, erotic art and a gay history of the 20th century.

All of the texts are taken from Steward’s own writings. The multitalented Kelly is credited with the direction, choreography, video design, animations, and set design. Three actor/dancers (Hucklefaery, Estado Flotante, and John William Watkins) play all of the other characters (students, sailors, nightmare creatures, and hustlers), as well as two appearances as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Having won an Obie Award for her 1999/2000 performance as Gertrude Stein in a previous play, Lola Pashalinski plays Stein on video, photographed by Josef Astor. The period music is from 16 different composers and singers. An earlier incarnation of Underneath the Skin appeared in October 2019 at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

John Kelly and John William Watkins in a scene from John Kelly’s “Underneath the Skin” at La MaMa (Photo credit: Bronwen Sharp for La MaMa)

Kelly plays Steward from ages 17 in 1926 to 84 when he died in 1993. The play is mainly narrated and performed in chronological order. Steward’s life is rather amazing considering he lived in a time when “homosexual love is a crime, punishable by arrest, fines and imprisonment.” The performance begins with a recitation of a defense of homosexuality that Steward wrote when he was 25 but signed with a pseudonym. We then travel back to when he was 17 and growing up in Woodside, Ohio, with three spinster aunts who ran a boarding house where he finds a volume a book left by a departed guest by sexologist Havelock Ellis which told him he was not alone.

Attending college in Columbus, he attends a lecture by author Hamlin Garland and gets to shake the hand of a man who had met Walt Whitman. When he was 27 he was already a published novelist with Angels on the Bough with its sympathetic portrayal of a prostitute which led to his being fired from his teaching post at the State College of Washington. The following year (1936) he made his first trip to Europe where he met many of the later gay icons of literature (Stein, Mann, Gide and Lord Alfred Douglas who had been Oscar Wilde’s lover.)

John Kelly as Samuel Steward in a scene from his “Underneath the Skin” at La MaMa (Photo credit: Bronwen Sharp for La MaMa)

From 1936 – 1946, he taught at two Catholic universities by day and conducted his sex life at night, keeping a so-called “Stud File” in which he cataloged all his lifelong sexual encounters. This later was of use to sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey in his investigations into sexuality in the American male. In 1943 he enlisted in the Navy but on his first night in Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Chicago he had such a reaction to the food that he was promptly given an honorable discharge. Steward was an alcoholic for 17 years, finally giving up alcohol in 1947. He began taking life drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago and became enamored of the erotic drawings of Jean Cocteau after meeting him in Paris in 1950. This led to his etching his own pornographic designs on aluminum drinking glasses.

Working as an extra in such Chicago productions as The Nutcracker, he decided to get a small anchor tattoo high up on his shoulder to be more in character. After the experience, he wondered why he was etching on metal when he could be writing on skin. In 1952 he took up tattooing and worked part time in the Sport Land Arcade on South State Street where he used the name “Philip Sparrow” to hide from his academic career. He found he was meeting a great many handsome young men and no longer needed to go cruising for partners. He gave up teaching and became famous as Philip Sparrow. When Illinois passed a law in 1963 forbidding tattooing of anyone under the age of 21, he lost his clientele among the sailors at the nearby naval training center.

Hucklefaery, John William Watkins and Estado Flotante in a scene from Kelly’s “Underneath the Skin” at La MaMa (Photo credit: Bronwen Sharp for La MaMa)

Moving to Oakland, California, he discovered to his regret that there was no business. After becoming the official tattoo artist for the Hells Angels, a job that turned out to be dangerous, he finally retired in 1970 but felt cut off from his former life. When the Supreme Court made its historic decision on obscenity in 1966, he began a new career as “Phil Andros” writing well received gay erotica with titles like The Boys in Blue, Stud and Greek Ways. He also published a book on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and erudite studies of tattooing and male hustlers. He had trouble growing old and losing his allure for younger men and passed away at age 84 in 1993.

This is simply a timeline of his multifaceted career while the play fills in these events with anecdotes, video and dramatizations by the four actors. The occasional nudity and rather explicit simulations may not be for all audience members but they are certainly elegantly presented. The many costumes, both realistic and fantasy are by Ramona Ponce, while the lighting by Nicholas Houfek for the many scenes and reenactments includes several coat racks with LED candles lining each side of the playing area.

Estado Flotante , Hucklefaery, John Kelly and John William Watkins in the alcohol nightmare sequence from John Kelly’s “Underneath the Skin” at La MaMa (Photo credit: Bronwen Sharp for La MaMa)

Kelly’s staging makes excellent use of the large space at the Ellen Stewart Theatre as well as one of the balconies for excerpts from Steward’s equally surprising college lectures on such topics as cooking a wolf and on the importance of dying young. Although Samuel Steward was a leader in gay rights long before there was a name for it, Underneath the Skin should go a long way to making him better known to a generation that has most likely never heard of him. It also reminds us of the paths various gay men took from 1920 – 1970 (pre-Stonewall) to avoid the repressive laws against homosexuality that existed in those days.

Underneath the Skin (extended through December 22, 2022)

La Mama

Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East Fourth Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.lamama.org

Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (852 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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