‘Jarman (all this maddening beauty)’
Through April 27
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street N.E.
Iconoclastic ‘80s filmmaker Derek Jarman was a standout among his peers. Gay and fearless, Jarman eschewed traditional movie making methods for more experimental, semi-narrative forms. His films like “Sebastiane” and the “Caravaggio” are deeply personal, wildly inventive and strongly homoerotic. He’s best remembered as one of the founding fathers of new queer cinema.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Jarman’s death from AIDS complications. In commemoration there are myriad salutes and retrospectives, mostly in London. Washington-based theater company force/collision is celebrating the artist with its latest offering “Jarman (all this maddening beauty).”
Acted and staged by the company’s founding director John Moletress and written by Obie Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich with filmed footage by talented local filmmaker Ben Carver, “Jarman” combines theater and film to create a glorious mishmash of sound, images and live performance.
“In making the project,” says Moletress who identifies as queer, “We sought inspiration from Jarman’s work. We weren’t attempting to recreate or make a comment. We approached it from a contemporary point of view keeping in mind how we’re making art today. You’ll see images of the left’s then-nemesis Margaret Thatcher, but you’ll also see images of Putin as well.”
At 80 minutes, “Jarman” is a solo show staged on a spare set, reminiscent of the filmmaker’s bare-bones studio. Moletress plays both the title character and a young artist from today. And while he’s the only actor onstage, 50 other actors contribute performances through voiceover and film projection.
“Jarman’s work is beautiful and rageful,” Moletress says. “As a filmmaker, he cared about community, queer identity and ensemble work. So does force/collision. Company members are involved in all facets of the production, but our intent has always been to tour ‘Jarman’ (it’s slated to play in England in the fall) and from a financial perspective it’s more feasible with a cast of one.”
The show’s footage was shot by Carver on locations throughout D.C., including the Arboretum and the shuttered, historic Washington Coliseum (located near Union Station) where the company staged a decadent end-of-the-world party.
“It was sort of an apoplectic tea dance,” Moletress says. “We had fog machines, a DJ, cheap Champagne and lots of actors drawn from D.C.’s mainly underground performance art scene. Ben (Carver) was instrumental in accessing unique locations and some interesting and well-built actors.”
In keeping with Jarman’s aesthetic, the production is homoerotic and there’s nudity.
“I’m naked onstage — that’s something I haven’t done since I was a twink. But I’m not nervous. I’m more concerned about dressing as Margaret Thatcher and dancing around violently with a butcher knife while giving the audience lap dances … and remembering my lines.”
As a 16-year-old video store clerk, Moletress, 35, saw his first Jarman film “Aria” (’87) featuring the filmmaker’s career-long muse Tilda Swinton. He was smitten. Moletress became further intrigued as an undergrad at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania when one of his English classes screened Jarman’s “Tempest” (’79).
Then last year, while doing “Gun Control Action Theatre” with playwright Caridad Svich, the pair agreed to collaborative on a project involving Jarman. “It was then that I really began watching all of his films and reading everything I could find about him. In my research, I learned that Jarman was a charming and determined man. Still, the deeper I delved, there was always more to know about him.”
Jarman arrived at filmmaking via art school. His early works include the sexy “Sebastiane” (‘76), about the martyred gay saint, and “Jubilee” (’78) featuring punk star Adam Ant. His best known film is “Caravaggio” (’86), in which the filmmaker celebrates the painter’s obsession with his thuggish studio model.
After being diagnosed with HIV while filming “The Last of England” (’86), Jarman continued to work, staging the Pet Shop Boys’ 1989 tour and making more films, working with big names like Judi Dench and Laurence Olivier. He spoke publicly about his illness and became increasingly active in the gay rights movement. Jarman died in London in 1994 at 52.
Moletress counts Jarman as a deserving member of the gay Pantheon: “There’s no shame in his work. Jarman didn’t pander. He made what he wanted to make. If it offended some people, he didn’t give a shit. Jarman never said no to his sexuality or to what he wanted to see on film.”