nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 5, 2005
From Pretty Woman to Irma la Douce to Sweet Charity and back again, the "hooker with a heart of gold" prototype is fairly pervasive in popular culture. So a play like John Pallotta's Jane Ho, which intends to take a serious look at the life of a "call girl," is fairly singular in its objectives. It is also—as compiled by Pallotta, who interviewed about 200 prostitutes in researching this piece, and as staged by Arian Blanco—an intriguing and unusual variation on the docudrama genre.
The play takes place in the boudoir of a prostitute (or escort, or call girl, or hooker, or whore; all those terms are used in the show) as s/he prepares for and executes an appointment with a "John." It's a figurative, rather than literal, boudoir: we're inside the generically-named Jane Ho's head for the entire running time of the play. Three actresses and one actor play the "Ho" or more precisely they play all the Jane Ho's and one single Jane Ho at the same time: an archetype and its vast variety. Above, up a glamorous-looking flight of stairs, is the "John," in a room with a bed that could be a hotel room or any other appropriate spot for an assignation, and every so often one or more of the Ho's heads up there to earn her/his keep.
The character/s tell us a lot about their lifestyle: They relish the cash. They enjoy the role-playing. They feel compromised. They hate men. They come from broken homes of various types. They're rigorous about safe sex. They're almost always safe. They hate their mothers. They worry about getting sick. They don't want to be judged. They hate that they can't tell people what they do for a living. They wonder what will happen to them when they're older. They're ashamed. They're very good at what they do, i.e., pleasing men. They've never known true love, and worry that they never will.
Pallotta's dramaturgy and Blanco's fluid, non-stop pacing ensure that the contradictions are what remain paramount: although there are some generalizations that we're led to in this play, the primary message appears to be that everybody's got their own story and that for us to just look in on these women and men and judge them is entirely inappropriate. Indeed, one of the things I thought was missing from Jane Ho was even more diversity: the stories told here are principally about high-end escorts (at least one of whom charges clients two thousand dollars an hour). But my intution tells me that the vast majority of prostitutes are at the other end of the economic spectrum, working at this job solely to survive the mean streets of whatever city they live in. For them, questions of psychology and self-actualization would seem to be beside the point; Jane Ho's "ho's"—their low self-esteem, as betrayed by that appellation, notwithstanding—seem to have a much easier life than a lot of their unseen, lower-priced sisters and brothers; and I would have liked to have learned more about these others.
The presence of a male prostitute among the three women is interesting, but also not explored as much as it could have been; this character seems to be representing only a single real-life source (unlike the others, who are very evidently drawn from multiple interviewees) and so there's less depth to what's revealed about him. His inclusion here, though, interestingly muddies the waters of the standard feminist argument about prostitution, which is that it demeans women by objectifying them. The sex trade, ultimately, would seem to be an equal-opportunity objectifier.
The play also raised one more set of questions for me, especially due to the presence of that "John" upstairs. Who is he? Without customers, the sex business goes out of business and the Ho's lose their victimhood. Maybe Pallotta can visit the other side of the transaction in a future project.
As you can see, Jane Ho is a thought-provoking work of theatre: by mining terrain that is apparently still pretty much taboo, Pallotta brings to the surface a host of issues and themes that have heretofore largely been ignored. He's to be commended for that.
Gregg Bellon's lush set—a Vegas-y fantasia in red velvet and gold—evokes the faux/real dichotomy of an occupation whose primary purpose is to provide temporary and illusory "love" for clients; it's gaudy without quite sinking into vulgar, which is an achievement. Bellon's lighting is fine too. The only costume credit is to Sheila Walker, for lingerie design—we get a sort of backwards striptease near the end of the show in which the Ho's change out of their Victoria's Secret-style outfits (silhouetted behind a screen) and into more conventional garb, which is quite effective.
The three women playing Jane Ho are Mikaela Kafka, Daina Michelle Griffith, and Heather Male; Kafka is more or less the lead "Jane" and she's successful, especially, in effortlessly switching among the various personas and points of view that Pallotta has assigned to her. But Griffith, who speaks with a Russian accent, creates the most affecting character. A.B. Lugo plays the Male Ho. Liche Ariza, silent throughout as the John, is nevertheless quite eloquent.