CALAMUS by Strike Me Pink at Het Amsterdams Theaterhuis

“How far are we willing to go in achieving (a perfect form of) love, a career, and validation?”

Performed at Het Amsterdams Theaterhuis, novel English theatre group in Amsterdam, Strike Me Pink, attempts to ask this question in their newly adapted and tragic-comedy queer production, Calamus.

Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull (1896) and Walt Whitman’s poems (1855), also called Calamus, Strike Me Pink produces an erotic play about striving for success and the expression of love.

In the play, protagonist Anthony Woodward, played by writer/artistic director, Ralph Remers, finds himself struggling with recognition as an inspiring writer. He is situated in his uncle’s Louisianan estate, aroused by the poems of his contemporary idol, Whitman himself.

Woodward’s muse is the local boy, Archibald, played by Padraig Turley, who similarly dreams of success and fame. Archibald sees his chance of becoming an established actor when Anthony’s mother, Rose Woodward, a famous Hollywood actress, played by Anna Anning, visits the estate with her lover and casting agent Gregory Scott, played by Keith Day.

Taking the themes of “conventional/accepted forms of love versus unconventional/unaccepted forms” in Chekhov’s and Whitman’s work, Remers is determined to express that “certain groups of people still face the same challenges and have to ask how far they’re willing to go in staying true to themselves.” The play further intends to concern the controversy received following the publications of Whitman’s work in the 19th century when same sex relationships were deemed highly immoral.

The additional themes of success, career and validation were also identifiable and appealed to Chekhov’s The Seagull particularly in the detrimental influences of fame seen in Archibald’s character and his dependency on the troubling and sexual relationship with Gregory Scott.

Each character was highly stereotypical which made them distinctly recognizable, easily comprehensible and surprisingly added to production’s comedic nature.

Rose Woodward was particularly intriguing. Her expressions and gestures are one you would precisely assume in the inflated ego of a stereotypical high-end Hollywood actress. She constantly amused the audience throughout. The love triangulation she co-conveyed between herself, Gregory Scott and Archibald also facilitated in portraying the evident thematic struggles of a ‘perfect love’ or otherwise the façade of it.

While Rose Woodward was in the majority of the scenes and dazzled us, the audience felt that they gradually, and quite unfortunately, found themselves forgetting that the two main protagonists were actually meant to be Antony and Archibald. The lack of scenes with the two of them together throughout the production thus deprived the opportunity to illustrate a climatic, sensuous tension between the protagonists which is what one would principally be expecting in a queer production.

Deliberate or not, the absence of light and sound design was apparent which could have been instrumentalized more extensively to emphasise a mood and curate a certain psychological verisimilitude. Underlying motifs could have additionally been made more implicit within the dialogue, in the use of props, lighting or sound which would make it more engaging for the audience to detect and truly experience the intimate and sensitive writing style of Whitman’s Calamus. Rather, the entire show was fully and solely dependent on the audience’s focus to the character’s dialogue which overall felt exhaustive and contrived a static experience.

The production as a whole is a unique concept and did highlight the struggles of achieving a ‘perfect love’ and the desire for ‘success’ which mirrored Chekhov’s The Seagull.  While there were intriguing interactions between the distinctive characters, the production could have employed Chekhov’s use of foreshadowing. Particularly at the finale, the unexpected and scarce development toward Woodward’s demise was rather baffling. It felt difficult for the audience to sympathise and further left us in doubt as to whether the play had really ended.

The number of love triangulations, sub-story lines between each of the characters, and very explicitly forced references to Whitman’s Calamus overall could be at times a bit compelling. However, with so much going on and with the direct associations the production eventually achieved a passive breadth in its totality rather than an artistic depth that could have better emulated the sensuous and intimacy of Whitman’s writing style.    Anja Herrmann  29th April 2023