Critics of prostitution, or sex work, as it is more commonly being referred to, have an all-star line-up of reasons for why they claim it is wrong. There are rote theories about power imbalances between call person and client; that sex is reduced to a commodity; distortions and falsehoods that all sex workers are trafficked or if long based somewhere they must surely be exploited and entrapped by a cruel pimp (hear the Bernard Hermann music in the background); that sex work automatically signifies sex and drug addiction, etc.
These conclusions certainly have some validity in some cases. However, standard generalizations can also cloud the beneficial qualities germane to the oldest profession. Playwright Deanna Strasse apprehends this and presents the transactional dynamic unconventionally. She turns the tables on the standard image of prostitution by making the woman the client and the man, the provider, in her exquisite Summers in Prague now in a superb Fringe production at Rarig Arena.
Samantha V. Papke plays Mara, the client, an American, who we see is not just turning to the transactional approach to merely satiate erotic curiosity. Mara also wants an emotional connection, which the actress conveys with touching timidity—Mara has never done this and has no a clear idea of the protocol. The audience is in the presence of a woman who is daring to walk into a brave new world. Papke reveals that with vulnerable lovability.
Avi Aharoni as the dreamy provider, Vaclav, is endearingly assured and sensitive to her needs and insecurities. Like other comedies, such as Bernard Slade’s Same Time Next Year and Terry Ray’s Electricity, the characters meet only every so often for limited amounts of time. Like those two plays, Summers in Prague shows the characters finding deeper layers of understanding between themselves in the process—something Papke and Aharoni do beautifully to bittersweet effect.
Client-provider paid adult encounters make sense to many reasonable and well adjusted adults in a cold world of alienated people and circumscribed social interaction that gets all the more circumscribed in our era of digital mania and speech policing. Such encounters can also demystify sex and even be a portal to healing, or to at least recognizing an inner resistance previously unconscious. Indeed, sexual exploration, when it doesn’t become compulsive, addictive, or unsafe can be a wonderful way to understand one’s self, as exemplified in Mara’s attainment of self-knowledge in Summers in Prague. Safe and respectful sex-based transactions might just facilitate that when approached responsibly.
These are things director Kimberly Miller has gently guided these two brave actors into the density of. Both come to reveal their deep feelings for one another and it makes them more human. If anything, that emotional connection may in some cases be a truer “danger” of sex transactions. (This can also be said of “friends with benefits” arrangements.)
Sex ubiquitously gets a bad judgmental wrap for supposedly being shallow, or focused too much on certain body parts, or for being animalistic (newsflash: humans are animals). However, it can definitely be the very opposite of shallow. What happens when any consensual adult couple actually finds they are truly fond of each other? That’s perhaps the real danger. When things cross over from raw sex to intimate eroticism, the essence of an interpersonal connection can change powerfully. In the case of transactional sex, reality will tend to dictate, which both Summer in Prague characters themselves ultimately have to face. Not an STD, but an emotional awakening of sorts. We ask whether or not their ongoing lives should take priority so that they simply move on or should they reshape their lives? Now talk about one tough question!
The wise Strasse understands these things. Her Summers in Prague is refreshing, remarkable, and much needed in our era when we walk on eggshells about saying the “wrong” thing or making the “wrong” move in that mysteriously wondrous dimension we know as sexuality. Some say that a good sex worker can be a godsend of a guide into the sphere of the erotic. In ancient Egypt, young men were initiated into that realm by a knowing woman tasked to do so by religious authority. Vaclav serves a similar role in contemporary Prague, albeit in reverse with an older person.
Summers in Prague
Rarig Arena, 331 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis
Minnesota Fringe Festival
Through Aug. 12