WORLD PREMIERE! Inspired by the conflicting accounts of what truly happened in 1951 when William S. Burroughs shot his wife Joan...
1951. Mexico City. Writer William S. Burroughs awakes to find himself in jail, being questioned about the shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer. Their drunken game of “William Tell” went horribly wrong, and now the Mexican detectives are probing Burroughs’ heroin-hazed, tortured mind for the truth. Filled with Burroughs’ hallmark vulgarity, voracious wit and provocative characters, Jon Bastian’s Bill & Joan is a phantasmagorical journey in search of what truly happened on that night when a speed freak and a junkie walked into a metaphorical bar, but only one walked out.
Warning: This production contains the use of live gunfire, nudity, profanity, strong sexual references and disturbing content.
Friday, Jan. 31: DONATE WHAT YOU CAN. It's "Pay What You Can" with a twist! Half of all proceeds for this performance will be donated to the Los Angeles Youth Network. Tickets that night may only be purchased at the door. Call (310) 281-8337 to make a reservation.
"This scorching drama is for the theatergoer who prefers his/her live stage productions to be edgy, imaginative and adventurous — i.e., Sacred Fools’ house specialty." -Hollywood Progressive
"...a stellar production... great acting and expert directing... a sheer joy to watch..." -Los Angeles Post
"...excellent... 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." -Stage and Cinema
"...a gamely unstoppable band of some of LA’s best underground actors... The production is exquisitely mounted... [a] masterwork... the play is crafty, fascinating in its boldness..." -Arts In LA
"...[a] continual sense of restless invention... a success." -TheaterTimes
Photos by Jessica Sherman Photography
Curt Bonnem as William "Bill" Burroughs
Betsy Moore as Joan Vollmer
Bart Tangredi as Clem Snide / Dr. Wiggers
Matt Valle as The Kid / Marco / Young Bill / Lucien
Will McMichael as Kim Carsons / Herbert / David
Donnelle Fuller as Willy Lee / Billy
Lauren Campedelli as Lilly Lee
Richard Azurdia as Enrique "Kiki" Armario
Alexander Matute as Roberto "Tito" Gil
Dana DeRuyck - Swing (Joan Vollmer / Lilly Lee / Willy Lee)
Scot Shamblin - Swing (The Kid / Enrique / Roberto "Tito" Gil / Clem Snide)
Rick Steadman - Swing (William "Bill" Burroughs / Kim Carson)
Director / Production Designer - Diana Wyenn
Playwright - Jon Bastian
Producer - David Mayes
Assistant Director / Properties Designer - Aaron Saldaña
Assistant Director - J Warner
Stage Manager - Rebecca Schoenberg
Co-Lighting Designers - Matt Richter & Christina Robinson
Co-Sound Designers - Mark Corben & Chet Leonard
Costume Designer - Lauren Oppelt
Effects Designer - John Burton
Fight Choreographer - Will McMichael
Associate Producer / Marketing Coordinator - Abraham Benrubi
Casting Coordinator - Elizabeth McIntire
Gun Training & Safety - Heatherlynn Gonzalez
Gun Tech - Richard Miraan
Publicity Photographer - Jessica Sherman Photography
Graphic Designer - Curt Bonnem
And the Beat Goes On: Naked Hunch
A bevy of Beat Generation features and documentaries have recently been released, some featuring high level talents, including: The Beats’ preeminent poet and City Lights bookstore luminary was the subject of the 2009 documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder. In 2010 James Franco portrayed Allen Ginsberg, the Beatniks’ poet extraordinaire, in Howl, a film about the poem of that name and the obscenity trial it spawned, co-starring Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, David Strathairn and Mary-Louise Parker. On the Road was adapted for the screen in 2012, with Sam Riley as its author, Jack Kerouac (called “Sal Paradise”), the Beatniks’ novelist extraordinaire, with Tom Sturridge as Ginsberg (called “Carlo Marx”), Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, plus Amy Adams as Joan Vollmer and Viggo Mortensen as William S. Burroughs.
Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and other expat Beats gathered at a shabby, inexpensive Parisian boardinghouse in the Latin Quarter from 1957 to 1963, as documented in Alan Govenar’s 2012 The Beat Hotel. In 2013 Harry Potter wunderkind Daniel Radcliffe played Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, with Ben Foster as Burroughs. That same year Jean-Marc Barr depicted Jack Kerouac and Kate Bosworth his lover, with ER’s Anthony Edwards as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in Big Sur, an adaptation of Kerouac’s last novel.
In 2012 the University of Kentucky Press published the erudite The Philosophy of the Beats. Now, in 2014, the latest addition to the Beatnik canon is not on the page or screen, but on the stage. Bill & Joan, which is world premiering at Sacred Fools, is about William S. Burroughs (Curt Bonnem) and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer (Betsy Moore), who were to the Beat Generation what the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were to the Punk Rock scene. The two-acter written by Jon Bastian focuses on the tumultuous pairing of the gay/bi Burroughs and Vollmer, “soulmates” born on the same day of the year whose relationship went terribly off the tracks and the beaten path.
Much of the action — which involves lots of substance abuse and all around debauchery (and douchery), plus, oh yeah, a little bit of writing here and there — is set south of the border when the titular Bill and Joan were expatriates. In particular, the play tries to unravel what really happened that night in Mexico in 1951 when [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!!!] Bill shot Joan in the forehead while they were playing what they fondly called their “William Tell game,” and something went terribly wrong. (Talk about “shot glasses”!)
Bill & Joan is a deeply dark, disturbing play with lots of sex (much of it gay), male nudity in the dark, explicit language, drug (take your pick) use and violence. No peacey lovey counterculture, these Beatniks. Bonnem’s Burroughs is not exactly prissy — he’s a bit of a dude or dandy, the well-dressed scion of the Burroughs business machine fortune, who put the “nasty” into dynasty. Moore’s Vollmer is adventurous, desperate, frenetic and frantic. Her common-law husband’s peccadilloes with Mexican rough trade and others seems, among other things, to drive her to substance abuse — just as her infidelity and hijinks getting high further propels Bill’s heroin addiction. As Ginsberg might have poetically summed it up: “Oy vey!”
A number of the dramatis personae played by the nine member cast seem to be characters from Burroughs’ novels and give form to his roiling unconscious. Among them Lauren Campedelli is a standout as the sultry Lilly Lee who lures the conflicted would-be writer with her allure. Donnelle Fuller is creepy as the Dickens-esque Willy Lee (a pseudonym or nickname for Burroughs), who seems to incarnate his addictions. This drama as well as the murder mystery at the heart of Kill Your Darlings sheds a whole new and not very flattering light on the Beatniks. (Ginsberg’s Columbia University classmate Lucien Carr, who was involved in Darlings’ darkness and is depicted by Dane DeHaan, is mentioned in Bill & Joan.)
The play as constructed is extremely expressionistic, although there is also something of a linear narrative. The set such as there is consists largely of 72 lights composed of large bulbs mounted onto what looks like hubcaps attached to the wall, and the lighting designers Matt Richter and Christina Robinson attain evocative effects. Perhaps the significance of this abundance of lights is to evoke an interrogation effect — during much of the action Burroughs is in custody at the Mexican hoosegow, where he is being held on suspicion of shooting Joan and under interrogation by two Mexican detectives (Alexander Matute and Richard Azuria of Weeds) who would be right at home in the 1958 Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil.
Director Diana Wyenn, who is also the production designer, does yeo(wo)man’s work in pulling everything together — including performances by nine actors, some of them in multiple roles — in this complicated mosaic that explores the surreal psyche of the author who wrote books entitled Queer, Junkie and 1959’s Naked Lunch, which David Cronenberg adapted for the screen in 1991, with Peter Weller and Judy Davis playing Bill and Joan.
Like that film this almost two and a half hour play (including the intermission) isn’t for ticket buyers who are faint of heart — Mama Mia! this ain’t. This scorching drama is for the theatergoer who prefers his/her live stage productions to be edgy, imaginative and adventurous — i.e., Sacred Fools’ house specialty. Bill & Joan tries to explain what Burroughs meant when he confessed that “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing.” In a way, Joan was his un-amusing muse. But one thing’s for sure: William S. Burroughs was to the Beat novel what Edgar Rice Burroughs was to adventure fiction — and his life and work was no less adventurous than Tarzan’s as he explored the jungles of the unconscious.
Why all this attention focused on the Bohemian behemoths of the Beat Generation now? Well, 2014 is the centennial of Burroughs’ birth, and anniversaries are resonant with the public. But other than that it beats the hell out of me — although I’m glad that Sacred Fools and the silver screen are remembering these early proto-countercultural rebels.
© 2014 Hollywood Progressive
A Look at the Demons of Brilliance.
Sacred Fools entertains the audience with a stellar production of Bill and Joan, a glimpse into the life of William S. Burroughs, a writer who was an important part of literary history, and the life he shared with his common-in-law wife, Joan Vollmer.
William S. Burroughs (Bill) novelist, poet and father to the beat generation was born into the wealthy Burroughs family of St Louis in 1914. He attended Harvard University but clearly shunned the conservative life that most of his peers were striving for. He had no intension of joining the family business and was happy to be bought off with a small trust fund.
After World War II, the country was on a wild ride; in the late 1940’s, there was a clear separation between the intelligentsias and the “squares”. The Beatnik Generation, those who could drop out of society, lived on allowances, and indulged themselves in their clever paradise without any consequences, became a generation-defining tribe.
He quickly imitated European café life socializing in NYC and San Francisco cafes, underground bars, and music clubs, and this gave him access to a society living on the edge that he craved. Through out his life Burroughs battled depression, and had fondness for alcohol, marijuana and heroin, which became the core of his most famous books.
Burroughs was always attracted to those who were on the fringes of society. His close friends were Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, but he felt most comfortable with harder core deviants like street dealers and thieves, echoing his contemporary Jean Genet in France. His books, like Naked Lunch, were banned and became the coda for a generation as they were passed around in cafes.
Soon heroin became his raison d’être as it absorbed his life and literature. The voices in his head and his alter ego integrated producing an American literary outlier of the time, Jon Bastian, the playwright, does an excellent job of laying this naked in front of the audience.
Although he was openly homosexual, he was intrigued with a woman he met at a party in NYC. They spent a night together and exchanged their secrets; it was as if they were soul mates. Joan was just as destructive; her daily fix was the drug speed. She became his common-in-law wife, and they spent several years on a farm in Texas and then Mexico City. Their relationship was volatile and cantankerous, but somehow they shared an emotional bond that made separation impossible. It was as if they were intertwined in misery. I would describe it as very Sid and Nancy, or Bonny and Clyde. Bastian brings their strong connection to an acceptable and believable understanding.
Burroughs is living in Mexico city with Joan and his son William Jr. They fled there after he was accused of drug dealing. The play opens in a Mexican jail with Burroughs being interrogated by two detectives. His wife was shot and died in a Red Cross hospital There was a game in a bar; the shot was fired from his gun, and they wanted to know what happened.
Bastian brings to life all those personalities that wore away at him; they drove him and controlled him as if he was their puppet. We watch their relationship through flash backs as he probes deep into his mind as he tries desperately to figure out what happened in the bar.
Curt Bonnem, who plays Burroughs, is excellent as the tormented soul always wearing his signature suit and tie. I could feel the pain.
Betsy Moore rocks it as his wife Joan. A weak willed woman, who suffered with her own issues, Joan ends up in a mental hospital while Burroughs was under house arrest in St. Louis. Unable to live without her, he rescued her when he returns to NYC. That is so romantic, yet their relationship was so disturbing.
One of my favorite Burroughs alter egos is Clem Snide (Bart Tangredi), the spitting image of Dashiell Hammett, and obviously, Burroughs had a fondness for hard-boiled detective novels. I loved Donnelle Fuller with her very dark, weak and destructive side. Matt Valle is the young boy Burroughs possessed and used to explore his bizarre sexual desires. Dana De Ruyck plays the woman he wished he could love, and she is everything Joan wasn’t.
Richard Azurdia ( Kiki) and Alexander Matite (Tito), as the Mexican detectives, work well together as the good cop and the bad cop. Tito read a manuscript that he found in Burroughs’ bag, which are the notes for his book Queer, and the detective has a change of heart, realizing how addicted and disturbed he was.
Tito, under the direction of his Captain, tries to get Burroughs to take his much-needed fix, but when he refuses he figures something is wrong, Tito sympathizes and helps in getting him released on bail, and Burroughs takes the opportunity to flee Mexico. Its not clear why the police let him go while watching the play but research suggests his family bribed the police and set up a case that would confirm Joan’s death was an accident.
Burroughs never really remembered what happened that night, but it did change something in him, and until the day he died, he swore he really did love her, but his love of hard drugs was stronger and like all destructive relationships it became his worst nightmare.
This is a really good depiction of the time period, great acting and expert directing by Diana Wyenn, and combined with the noir setting makes this hard-edge story a sheer joy to watch, with the cast really digging into their characters.
I loved it. Don’t miss it.
© 2014 Los Angeles Post
RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
© 2014 Los Angeles Post
It followed a “perfectly ordinary day, filled with perfectly ordinary dread,” occurring at a drunken all-night party in Mexico City in 1951. Amid the mariachi music, limitless drugs, and free-flowing booze, William S. Burroughs did his heroin-fueled William Tell routine and fatally shot his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, directly between the eyes. The incident changed Burroughs’s life and began his previously stalled career as one of the great counterculture writers of the last century.
In playwright Jon Bastian’s dense stage version of the incident, chronicling a dreamlike, partially fictionalized account of the death of Vollmer and its influence on the earthly afterlife of Burroughs’s latter-day, arresting, wordsmith-ery pieces of the writer’s tortured mind are personified by a gamely unstoppable band of some of LA’s best underground actors, playing ghosts of the lingering, loudly demanding demons that haunted the man.
As Burroughs (Curt Bonnem) is grilled by two wonky Mexican cops (Richard Azurdia and Alexander Matute), he relives his life with Vollmer (Betsy Moore) as the others circle him endlessly, each and every seemingly simple movement expertly choreographed by director Diana Wyenn. There’s Lauren Campedelli as the sultry Billie Holiday-esque temptress Burroughs might like to have been, Matt Valle as the randy homosexual he aspired to emulate, Donelle Fuller as the embodiment of his trusty ever-present smack-filled syringe, Will McMichael as the dumb Joe Buck of a cowboy one would expect the writer might have liked to absorb and master, and Bart Tangredi as a private detective–type right out of a Sam Spade novel.
But the relationship examined here through all these side trips is the one between Burroughs and Vollmer, he a junkie and she a speedfreak, both from overly privileged families from whom they worked desperately to distance themselves. “It’s like all the lights go away in there,” Joan whines to her stupefied lover. “That’s the general idea,” he croaks in return. “I need you to behave as normally as possible,” she admonishes him before the fatal party. “Which neither of us knows how to do,” he counters.
The production is exquisitely mounted, with an uncredited but versatile set design, moody lighting by Matt Richter and Christina Robinson, and knockout costuming by Lauren Oppelt. Wyenn’s hand is everywhere, paying obvious homage to Bastian’s masterwork—which of course, in turn, pays obvious homage to the work of Burroughs. How many of the quotable lines are directly from the author and how many from the playwright would take a more dedicated Burroughs scholar than yours truly. Either way, the play is crafty, fascinating in its boldness and ability to evoke the musty, gritty pages of a Burroughs novel.
“If language is a virus,” Burroughs surmises here, “maybe metaphors are the vaccine.” Burroughs spent a lifetime looking for that cure—and Bastian has spent years working and reworking this play in a mirror of that brilliantly twisted literary cry for any small morsel in understanding his fucked-up world. Thanks to Wyenn and her exemplary cast and design team, the result is well-worth that effort.
--Travis Michael Holder
© 2014 Arts In LA
More than 20 years ago, when Jon Bastian was beginning his playwriting career, he started a script on writer William S. Burroughs. Sensing that his skills needed to catch up with his ambitions, he backburner'd Burroughs and pursued other projects, including Noah Johnson Had a Whore . . ., which premiered in 1992 at the theater where I did publicity. Two decades of play fermentation and playwright maturation ended in February when Bill and Joan took the stage at L.A.'s Sacred Fools Theater Company.
The delay meant that Bill and Joan's mounting now marked the centennial of Burroughs' birth, on February 5. More importantly, it meant that director Diana Wyenn, in grade school when Bastian began, was available to give the production the continual sense of restless invention that bubbles beneath the Spartan staging and makes it such a success.
The history of Burroughs and his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, climaxed in Mexico City in September 1951. In a festive atmosphere blurred by heroin, Benzedrine, and alcohol excess, Bill and Joan, an important Beat-generation figure in her own right, played a game of "William Tell." Based on the fictional bowman's legendary shooting of an apple off his son's head, Burroughs, a gun enthusiast and practiced marksman, targeted the highball glass atop Joan's head. Aiming low, he hit the head instead.
The play begins the next day, with Burroughs (Curt Bonnem, a reasonable vocal and visual facsimilie) awaiting interrogation by local detectives (Richard Azurdia and Alexander Matute). He sits repeating "Nothing is true, everything is permitted," a favorite maxim by an 11th Century religious agitator in Persia. Hassan I Sabbah lived up to the maxim, one Burroughs biographer wrote, by "recruiting political assassins who were fed hashish for motivation."
What's true and what's permissable blur beautifully in Bastian's and Wyenn's vision. Though Burroughs is useless recounting the previous evening's events, the interrogation prompts shards of historical flashback and hallucinatory flurries that blend his fictional writing with facts about his life with Vollmer (an impressive Betsy Moore). The rest of Wyenn's ensemble (Lauren Campedelli, Donnelle Fuller, Will McMichael, Bart Tancredi, and Scot Shamblin in for regular Matt Valle) create Burroughs' confidants – real and imagined. Among them, the revelation is Fuller, who, in what could produce a collective audience eye-roll, creates a riveting embodiment of heroin's alternating hunger and bliss.
If there is a dead zone in Bastian's work it is in the loggerheads that he quickly reaches in the interrogation room. The addled Burroughs obviously can't remember what happened and, as good as Azurdia is, the lead detective hits high frustration early and has nowhere to go. Eventually the second detective provides some character dimension and an avenue out of the dramatic stalemate.
Along with the strong showings of Bonnem, Moore, and Fuller, a quick appreciation for McMichael's fight direction on a handful of upstage slaps and punches. Every one comes out of the blue, cracks with a perfectly timed smack, and sends the recipient reeling. It may be a benefit of seeing the show at the end of its run, and perhaps Wyenn's choreographer chops helped, but it nevertheless bears the stamp perfectionists, and is appreciated.
Wyenn, who takes "production design" credits, designed an abstracted interrogation room set surrounded by stacked panels of lights with drip-pan reflectors. Matt Richter and Christina Robinson's light cues provide enough variation to establish the various moods and locales. Druggies who've been face-down for a stovetop light and eyebrow singe will feel right at home with the double-meaning drip-pans.
It may not be clear that, although Burroughs was a charter member of the Beat writers who gathered at Vollmer's New York City home in the 1940s, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, he disdained writing at first. Kerouac's On The Road had been written months before Joan's death, but Burrough's first published novel, Junky, would not be out until after the infamous, and clearly cathartic, episode in Mexico City.
© 2014 TheaterTimes