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The Flea's first show in its new home is a very strange love story
After 21 years on White Street in Tribeca, The Flea has moved to a much larger and sleeker space four blocks down on Thomas. But theatregoers worried that its new $25 million digs -- featuring three intimate stages and a garden -- might change the offbeat programming the Off-Off-Broadway company is known for can rest easy. Its inaugural show, Inanimate by Nick Robideau, is about an awkward young woman in a controversial love affair…with a Dairy Queen sign!
As wacky as that may sound, Inanimate is based on a real condition, objectum sexuality, when someone is romantically attracted to inanimate objects. The most celebrated case involved a woman who claimed to be married to the Eiffel Tower though there are other documented examples.
In Inanimate, Erica (Lacy Allen, a member of The Flea's resident troupe of unpaid actors the Bats) realized she was different when she hit puberty. While her classmates ogled a dreamboat teacher, she pined for his stapler. Subsequent crushes included a streetlight, and on lonely nights she got nasty with her can opener. Then Dee -- her pet name for the DQ sign -- won her heart.
Director Courtney Ulrich educated herself about the phenomenon by watching documentaries, many of which paint a salacious picture. "A lot are not very kind to people with objectum sexuality," she says. "Everyone's very focused on the sex, and they're not really thinking about the emotional connection."
To illustrate that aspect of Erica's relationships, actors embody and give voice to various objects. Thanks to Sarah Lawrence's clever costumes and committed performances from the Bats, inanimate items such as Erica's bedroom lamp and her teddy bear become distinct characters. "You come to realize that these objects have personalities," Ulrich says. "The lamp is more fatherly and the can opener is into BDSM."
But Dee (played by Philip Feldman) is Erica's soulmate. She professes her love for him after nightfall, her heart all aflutter as she basks in his bright light. And watching them together, you get it. Clothed in a red-and-white leather jacket and backed by a soundtrack of electric guitar, Feldman has all the cool and charisma of a rock star.
As the story unfolds with a lot of humor but also heart, Erica stumbles along the path to self-acceptance and, eventually, comes out as an objectum-sexual woman. As Flea artistic director, Niegel Smith, points out, her journey works as a metaphor for any love that flouts convention. The playwright intentionally "chooses an object that's located in a public space, so Erica has to say, 'My love is going to be public,'" Smith says. "Talking about how we come together and form community and live out our love -- it's necessary at any time."
Speaking of community, The Flea staff have been greeting passers-by with free lemonade in exchange for their email addresses, and letting all the neighbors know the theatre's new home is up and running, even though construction is still ongoing. (The complex officially opens September 28.) Looking at The Flea's new sign -- slender and gray with neon-green lettering -- I ask Smith what it would say if it had the power to speak. He laughs. "No matter what side of the block you come from, 'Come on in!' it says. Just come on in."
Gavin Whitehead is a writer and dramaturg based in New Haven.
Top image: Lacey Allen and Philip Feldman in Inanimate. Photos by Hunter Canning.
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