Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)

From left, Catherine Hrrison, KayLynn Raschke and Lisa Farmer of Permission

From left, Catherine Harrison, KayLynn Raschke and Lisa Farmer of Permission

There is “permission” to enter the secret world of the professional dominatrix through playwright Catherine Harrison’s stories of her former job as a prominent San Francisco power whore.

It’s just that the innermost sanctum of the S/M sex trade doesn’t seem so forbidden anymore – at least not to gay people who are increasingly accustomed to drag role power experimentation.

I suspect the masses are becoming more familiar with these possible scenarios too. How this may be so is actually why Permission works as a performance. It provides a great deal of information otherwise unavailable in our pop-mediated diet of sex myths.

Let me explain. Ever since AIDS, every queer I know has dabbled in S/M for the mentally stimulating aspects of sex it offers. The most bourgeois lesbian and gay consumer has also needed to eroticize physical membranes: dental dams, condoms, latex gloves, etc. These self-imposed distancing devices and prophylactics seem infused with mild elements of kink. There’s also phone sex for cerebral/sexual workouts.

As an industry, all of these phenomena are surprisingly close to the cardinal rules set by Harrison, as Mistress Marlene in Permission. She espouses in her personalized training seminars for the efficient dominatrix, “Never touch the client, and let them do all the work. It is, after all, their fantasy and release from the daily grind that they’re paying for.”

Various metaphors about distancing the body, from the late 1920s Berlin to current-day American, are condensed in this performance. This is a show which literally teaches you a few of the ropes, or at least insists there are a few safety rules in the S/M physical and psychological play-time repertoire.

I suspect there’s also a straight, middle-class appeal to a show like this, sheerly in terms of clarifying the mixed messages people generally have crashing over them in the newspapers and TV. As another sexpert, Susie Bright, has said elsewhere: “There is an openness about sexual subjects that we’ve never had before – at the same time they’re being condemned” – like AIDS and anal sex in a frenzy of evening new reportage.

The slightest glimmer of honesty in a context like this is as useful to the masses as it probably is to other sex workers. If you thing about it, as a people, we’re a bit over-orchestrated toward titillating untruths. Catherine Harrison as Marlene,KyLynn Raschke as Monique, and Lisa Farmer as Brett, each take turns unmasking this big allure in director Kelly Hill’s production.

I ogled all the slinky specialty costumes and tuned in to the inherently circular masochism of the theatre. After all, performers always sacrifice themselves to the gaze, even in their most sadistic characterizations.

As entertainment, I found the show weak. As a performance piece recounting life experiences, however, I felt “permitted” and entrusted view of another’s reality. One of the mistress’ riddles lingers – “What happens when you make up your own rules? Your are society’s worst nightmare, and, its biggest fantasy.”