Oh! Calcutta!
directed by Jacques Levy
(Tigon, 1972)

There was a lot of new ground broken when Oh! Calcutta! opened off Broadway as the turbulent '60s rolled to a close. Half play, half musical, the production was notable for its brazen use of full nudity (male and female) on stage. Even today, three decades later (and more than 10 years since the long-running show closed its curtain for the last time in Manhattan), I still hear about the bold, innovative landmark in theater. Given the involvement of luminaries such as John Lennon, Sam Shepard, Jules Feiffer and Peter Schickele (a.k.a. PDQ Bach) in its composition, I was intrigued to see how the video of the original Oh! Calcutta! stood the test of time.

It doesn't.

I've seen a lot of creative things done combining nudity and dance, and much of it has been done quite well. And it's in that area that Oh! Calcutta! still shines. The choreography, credited to Margo Sappington, is excellent in many places.

But the comic skits which make up the bulk of the show are for the most part sophomoric. The writers and performers seem almost like pre-teens, giggling at the blatant sexuality and striving primarily to shock the audience. This isn't just stage nudity, you see -- the video is laced heavily with simulated sex, oral sex and gratuitous groping.

I could probably have been a lot more forgiving if the production had gotten off to a better start. However, after a successful opening scene, the second bit left a bitter taste in my mouth for the rest of the show.

The video begins with backstage clips showing the cast (five men, five women) having makeup applied to various body parts as they chat about the upcoming show. Meanwhile, in the theater, the audience is shown arriving, visibly unsure what to expect. Then the full ensemble comes onstage for the opening number -- dressed in fluffy bathrobes, they take turns unveiling themselves in a variety of ways, showing the audience from the get-go that this show and this cast have nothing to hide. If you're turned on by a little mystery, don't look for it here.

The second scene, featuring nursery rhyme characters Jack and Jill in bright yellow English schoolchild garb, starts off as a mildly amusing farce about innocence in the face of "cocktail parties and orgy parties," and ends with a brutal rape. There's nothing to laugh about there, nor is there any deep or meaningful point to be made. The scene attempts to shock, which it does successfully. But, given that most of the play is "funny stuff," rape is a tasteless, pointless plot device.

Nothing in the remaining span of the video redeems that fatal flaw. Sure, some of the skits are funny, and some are clever, but there isn't anything funny or clever enough. And some scenes -- for instance, a nervous husband and wife on their first night of spouse swapping, and a group of men who project sexual fantasies on a big screen and masturbate to the images -- are just plain crude.

Fortunately, Oh! Calcutta! still has some excellent dance numbers going for it. Unfortunately, the music itself is fairly lackluster throughout. All in all, there are better ways to spend two hours of your time, unless you're really desperate to see nude bodies on stage.

Those bodies, if you're interested, belong to Raina Barrett, Mark Dempsey, Samantha Harper, Patricia Hawkins, Bill Macy (Walter on Maude), Mitchell McGuire, Gary Rethmeier, Margo Sappington, Nancy Tribush and George Welbes.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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