Hardcover Theater: Reading the book for its naughty bits

"Johnny Bocca's Sex Farce for Swinging Lovers" is based on Giovanni Boccaccio's 600-year-old "Decameron."
Courtesy of the Hardcover Theater
“Johnny Bocca’s Sex Farce for Swinging Lovers” is based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 600-year-old “Decameron.”

Playwright and comedienne Shanan Wexler remembers Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” making the rounds in her sixth-grade class for its, ahem, scandalous passages.

“That thing was all over recess!” recalls Wexler, also a local director and theater performer.

Wexler refers, of course, to a covert but nearly universal practice: combing through otherwise respectable books in search of the steamiest passages. “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews. “Forever” by Judy Blume. Heck, Wexler recalls being tantalized by the earlier works — the potboilers — of Louisa May Alcott. Word spreads like wildfire through the ranks of young readers and, before you know it, the entire junior high is headed for page 113.

In reverence to this book-lovers’ tradition, one that apparently transcends the ages, Wexler’s newest show, “Johnny Bocca’s Sex Farce for Swingin’ Lovers,” produced by Hardcover Theater,  consists exclusively of a book’s naughty parts.

The source material is Giovanni Boccaccio’s 600-year-old “Decameron,” a medieval Italian work similar to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Out of the volume’s 100 novellas, Wexler says “there’s somewhere between 15 and 20 naughty stories.” In fact, Wexler’s co-writer, Joshua English Scrimshaw, recalls reading the “Decameron” for the very purpose of finding its saucy bits when he was a college English major. The volume has that kind of reputation.

Hardcover Theater artistic director Steve Schroer, a guy who regularly adapts hefty novels and other literary works for the stage, struck upon the idea several years back: “I had this small volume that was a selection of the naughty stories,” explains Schroer. “I looked through them and said, ‘Hmm, these stories, with the appropriate changes, could almost take place anytime.’ “

But the green light didn’t present itself until recently, when Schroer realized his cast of the long-running “London after Midnight” was perfectly suited to staging the “Decameron’s” so-called amorous tales. He enlisted the comic chops of Wexler and Scrimshaw who, in turn, co-wrote and perform in the new show. Wexler pulled triple-duty as the show’s director. It opened Thursday night at the Playwrights’ Center and runs through June 1.

In the original version, the characters are holed up in a monastery to avoid the plague; storytelling passes the time. But Wexler and Scrimshaw decided to set their piece in 1959 Naples, N.J. (the Rat Pack era). This new version features a group of barflies who frequent an Italian joint — “just like Mancini’s in St. Paul,” says Wexler. They sidle up for a few drinks and a hearty helping of tawdry tales.

Taking pity on bored ladies

But Wexler and Scrimshaw, by now grownups, found themselves interested in more than just smut: Both were inspired by the fact that Boccaccio dedicated his volume to the ladies, taking pity, it appears, on a generation of bored women stuck at home with little in the way of distraction. In this regard, say Wexler and Scrimshaw, their 1950s setting is ideal — the disenchantment of that era’s housewives is well documented, of course. In fact, Wexler plays a redheaded, ’50s homemaker who wanders into the bar to use the payphone, but sticks around to enjoy the bawdiness.

One of these naughty dramas — the first Wexler read when she embarked on this project — features a young man who poses as a deaf-mute in order to persuade a mother superior into giving him a job at her convent. Of course, his new gig provides the perfect cover for his affairs with alluring, young nuns.

“I was like, Are you kidding me?” says Wexler. “So, we decided to set it in a finishing school in South Carolina.”

Scrimshaw’s favorite naughty bit involves a young, naïve girl who approaches a monk about becoming a Christian. (Hardcover’s version trades the monk for a beatnik.) “The monk convinces her that to be a Christian you’ve got to ‘put the devil back in hell,’ ” says Scrimshaw. “At the end of the story, she wears the monk down because she so enjoys putting the devil back in hell that he can’t take it anymore.”

What:
Hardcover Theater’s “Johnny Bocca’s Sex Farce for Swingin’ Lovers”
When: Through June 1
Where: The Playwrights’ Center, 2301 Franklin Ave. E, Minneapolis
Tickets:
$20
Contact: 612-581-2229
Online

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