DVD review: Oh, Calcutta!

Oh, Calcutta! is one of those Age of Aquarius theater experiences I’ve known about for some time. One comes across references to it when one delves into the 60s and 70s or the modern history of theater. I never knew exactly what it was about or why it had that peculiar title. Its main claim to fame was that it featured a lot of onstage nudity, but claims like that always tend to fall short of the hype. As an experiment it seems never to have been revived or repeated, so I never got much of a sense that it was interesting as a show apart from the surprise of seeing naked actors.

Recently I found a copy of Oh, Calcutta! at the video store. I didn’t realize any document of it existed, but apparently it was videotaped in 1971 for television. (I have to imagine this was a Canadian television outfit, because no American network would show anything like it, not without censoring adult themes, language, and nudity, without which there isn’t much show left to air.) I was mildly curious to finally see it, not realizing I ever would, and the credit for John Lennon as a writer pushed me over the edge. I didn’t know he had anything to do with it, but it was around the time he first moved to New York City. There’s no mention of what exactly he contributed, and I figure all of my speculations are probably way off the mark; if I were to learn what Lennon added to it I’d most likely say, “That? Huh.”

In any event — there were a couple of things that made it worth watching, but for the most part, it is a collection of sketches, comic and serious, that are completely dated satires on the expanding sexual mores of the time. A young couple answers a swingers ad to find out what that’s all about, and some unappealing oldsters arrive to get it on. There’s one about a confused young girl who wants to be all free love but is actually really uptight and insecure about sex even with a steady boyfriend, who turns out to be into all sorts of wacky things that she won’t let him do. A victorian sleaze invites a haughty dame over and tries to ensconce her in his custom designed sex traps, but she turns out to be not quite as pristine as she seemed. A weird bit where a man and a woman are dressed as children for some sort of roleplay, and after some teasing and flirting, he rapes her. That one was really disturbing, of course, but intentionally so. It came at the beginning and nearly made me stop watching.

There’s an inane “wacky doctor” sketch where everyone mugs and rolls their eyes and leers and none of it ever produces a laugh. A good looking redhead does disrobe, which is something. More on that in a minute.

There was one skit where two country hicks are sitting in rocking chairs. The joke is that one of the hayseeds spends two minutes drawling about paintin’ the fance [sic], makin’ a rock garden with them rocks he collected, and other bumpkin affairs. Then the other fella, after a long pause, starts talking in the same slow drawl about frank sexual experiences, favorite sex positions, and other explicit admissions (and emissions). Then, after a long pause, the first guy falls out of his chair. It wasn’t really that funny, but I understood what they were going for, and it made me want to put on my director hat and restage it so it worked better, probably by having the second guy start talking earlier, and the first guy attempt to keep talking about nothing in hopes of getting the other guy to change the subject, with rising unease. Although, I guess if you do it that way he can’t fall out of the chair at the end, because his shock has already registered. Ah well.

At about that point in the show, I turned off the DVD and thought about returning it with the rest unseen. Then I played the rest of it the next day and saw something worthwhile. It was a dance, a ballet, performed by a lithe young woman and a muscular young man. It’s basically just a dance evocation of a sort of archetypal meeting and mating ritual between male and female. Both dancers are nude, but it would work the same in leotards. I’ve been thinking about dance lately, in that it’s an art form I read about (in the New York Times arts section), and have developed an intellectual respect for it and what it takes to choreograph it well(the obits for Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham were both fascinating to me on a certain level), but I have basically zero ability to watch it with any sense of appreciation. From classical ballet to the idiotic spread-leg humping of music video dance, or even the dances in West Side Story, I’m bored by it, I don’t get it, or it just looks dumb. About the only dance I like is watching Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, but a lot of that is about the percussive syncopation of their feet and the sound it makes, and not so much about them waving their limbs around.

Well, so, finally, this one naked dance appealed to me. It’s funny when I say it that way, but at least with this dance I understood the story it was telling and the way that the choreography was designed to tell it one symbolic move at a time. There are times when they split apart, and times when they fall back in synchronization. Moves when she makes a ripple with her body and it jolts him. By the time I finished watching it, I was thinking, “Well, a lot of this show looks kind of amateurish in a way, but somebody hired a professional choreographer to work out this dance. Even I can see that.” I watched it again the next day, then looked up on the web who the choreographer was, and it turns out to have been the woman in the dance, Margo Sappington. She is still a working choreographer, and Oh, Calcutta! was her debut as a choreographer.

I started wondering if you asked her about that dance today (titled, according to the DVD chapter menu, “One on One”) she’d be embarrassed and dismissive. Not because of the nudity, but just the perspective an older artist has about the work they did when they were younger. “Oh, it’s too blatant, it’s too direct. I’d do it much more subtly now. It’d be the same but much more effective.”

Anyway, I was forced to think that this dance number alone made it worth renting.

The show ends in a bright exuberant display of full frontal nudity from the entire cast. The nudity turned out to be appropriately hyped after all, at least for this one number, anyway. The cast assembles after all the skits are done and appear to be just in street clothes talking amongst themselves as if we were eavesdropping on their backstage chat. Then a few of them start singing, and then dancing. Then Margo Sappington, who I was looking at already, gets a spotlight shined right on her. She beams a big smile, then tears off her one-piece jumpsuit. At once, the rest of the cast all rip off their clothes and run around with joyful smiles for a minute, happy in their immodest and unembarrassed freedom. All in all, I wish I could see more happy nudity like this, but it really isn’t what you get from any pornographic or erotica source, which is generally where nudity is to be found in the marketplace.

The cast is half male and half female. The women in the show are all pretty, which is nice. The downside in terms of the men is seeing Bill Macy, best known for playing the husband of Bea Arthur on Maude, just a few years after he did Oh, Calcutta! Seeing Bill Macy naked is only a few places removed at the bottom of my wish list from seeing Bea Arthur naked, but suddenly there he is. Although, if you’ve ever been to any kind of clothing-optional beach or park most of what you see there are guys who look like Bill Macy. It becomes tolerable for its ubiquity. So, I guess I’m at the point with male nudity (which seems to be on an upswing, so to speak, in Hollywood movies lately, for some reason — it seems to be something Judd Apatow brought to the table, unasked) where it’s like, okay, whatever, just don’t stand in the way too long. (Also, apparently Bill Macy married one of the women in the cast of Oh, Calcutta!, so I guess he must have a great personality. Or he made her laugh.)

Female nudity, of course, never loses its inexhaustable and enduring appeal. So from that standpoint, Oh, Calcutta! is worth a look, if only to see Margo Sappington dance.

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