It took the New York playwright Kari Bentley-Quinn two years to write Paper Cranes, which she completed in June 2010. In the process, she had the active assistance of actress Susan Louise O’Connor, who was making her Broadway debut in the revival of Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury, and who won a Theatre World Award for her performance as Edith the psychic housemaid.
She was helping to develop the key character of Amy, whom she would play, first in a closed reading, and then in the first full production, which opened at the Access Theatre, New York, on April 15, 2011, after a month’s rehearsal. For our purposes, the other important character is David, played in the reading by Simon Kendall and in the production by Eric T. Miller, seen here with Susan:
The play was staged as an Equity showcase production, which meant that the run was strictly limited: it closed on May 8 after sixteen performances, just as the author felt it was beginning to gel. Naturally she was particularly pleased with one of the performances, and so, by the sound of it, would we have been:
’Susan Louise O’Connor had to get spanked and tied up every night, and she did it with elegance, grace and humor (she looked extra fabulous doing it, by the way).’
I’d like to be able to judge the accuracy of that statement, but no photographs of the spanking scene are available – or, in all likelihood, were ever taken. But (after the obligatory ‘strong language alert’) I can tell you more about the play itself…
The prologue uses interlocking monologues to establish three of the characters. First there is bereaved, grieving Mona, who has heard the Japanese tradition that you will be granted one wish if you fold a thousand origami cranes, but who didn’t make enough to save her husband; now she continues obsessively folding the paper birds that give the play its title. Then there are Amy and David, both addicts of a particular kind of sexual relationship. ‘I need to submit and they need to control,’ says Amy, while David is more explicit:
I see what have become countless, faceless asses
Upturned, red handprints on white flesh.
They go on to describe how they met on the internet and set up a liaison. Amy was instructed to wear all black, including her shoes and underwear, and to remain silent throughout.
DAVID: I promised I wouldn’t hurt her.
AMY: I said I wanted him to hurt me.
DAVID: I meant it.
AMY: He said he wouldn’t have to.
DAVID: I didn’t know what I meant.
AMY: I was turned on.
But David has a secret: if Amy wants and needs to be mastered, dominated, spanked, David feels a terrible sense of guilt at what he is doing. We shall find out why in due course.
This relationship is juxtaposed with Mona’s ongoing sense of loss, two years after she was widowed, and with a developing lesbian encounter between her daughter Maddie and Amy’s friend Julie. The Amy and David situation resumes in the second scene, set in his bedroom. He orders her to undress:
Amy starts with shoes – David stops her from removing them. Amy slides her black dress off. She is in very expensive and carefully purchased black lingerie – bra, panties, garters. The expensive shoes stay on.
He then ties her hands with a black silken rope, and instructs her that she must not speak or cry out except to say the safeword ‘Birdie’. And then:
David sits on the bed, snaps his fingers and motions for Amy to bend over his lap. She does so. He spanks her once, hard. She doesn’t cry out. He spanks her again, hard. She doesn’t cry out. He spanks her one more time, she almost cries out but manages to suppress it.
DAVID: Good girl.
And with that, the encounter moves on from spanking to sex.
When this scene was rehearsed, incidentally, they had cause to regret the requirement that Amy should not remove her shoes. While being spanked, Susan Louise O’Connor managed to put her heel through the mattress – and it was an air mattress… POP!!!
Fast forward now to the aftermath. Amy makes her exit from the bedroom whilst David is still asleep, pausing only to steal a photograph from a drawer in the bedside table. She has discovered that there is, or was, another woman in his heart – that what she describes as the best sex of her life was for him an act of substitution. Amy looks almost exactly like his murdered girlfriend, and, as he later admits to Mona, ‘All I can see is Ashley.’
Amy’s next meeting with David moves them deeper into S/M territory:
Amy wordlessly undresses and crosses her arms in front of her to be tied. David takes great sensual pleasure in tying her wrists together. He puts her into position on the bed and reveals a long, thin riding crop. Amy can barely conceal her fear and desire. He smacks her once and then twice, and the lights go down on them for the third audible smack.
The scene ‘crossfades’ to Maddie and Julie, and later returns:
Lights come up on David’s bed, where Amy is being untied from the bedposts. She is, again, only in black underwear and bra. We can tell that her legs have been whipped or spanked – angry red welts appear on them. When David has finished untying her, Amy involuntarily throws her arms around him. David holds her for a long minute, remembers, and then lets her go.
He ensures that she is not hurt and will get home safely, then leaves her alone to get dressed.
Amy is emotional as she begins to put her clothes on – black skirt, black top. Amy slides the skirt over her legs, and smarts when it hits the welts. Amy examines them.
… and then she gets out her cellphone and rings Julie to ask her out for a drink. When they meet, she’s still wearing a skirt, and the marks on her legs are obvious. She keeps self-consciously pulling it down.’ The welts appal Julie: ‘This stuff is dangerous! Even with someone you know, never mind some grief stricken psychopath you met on the fucking internet!’
A monologue by David, addressed to the dead Ashley, explains how he came to do what he now does in the bedroom. In the immediate aftermath of her death, tormented with the memory of her, he went out and got drunk.
The pretty bartender took pity on me.
In her apartment I fucked her, nearly hysterical with pleasure and grief,
And in her drunken haze, she asked me to spank her.
So I did.
I looked down and saw my handprint materialize on her skin like a developing photo.
And suddenly, for one moment, you were there, my love,
Tossing your hair back, red as she was, red on white, until it blurred before me
And as I left her apartment at daybreak
I felt alive, and full of possibility.
There was a way to bring you back.
There was finally a way.
So, I’ve been chasing your ghost under the skirts of strangers.
Until there was her.
And that’s why he feels guilty: he’s not a natural born spanker, just someone who has found in spanking a means to an end. At their next encounter, he treats Amy with conventional sexual tenderness: no bondage, no spanking, just kissing and the missionary position and ‘I love you’ – and it absolutely terrifies her.
The relationship is at an end, but Amy takes Julie’s advice, Googles David and learns who Ashley was. She apologetically returns the purloined picture, and as we leave the play, most of the characters have found some kind of fulfillment: Julie and Maddie have come to terms with their lesbianism, and David is about to begin a new, non-spanking relationship with Mona. Only Amy’s emotional journey seems unfinished.
Paper Cranes is a humane, sensitive play that deals delicately with the sexual dimension of bereavement and with the ways that unconventional, ‘weird’ sexualities are open to misunderstanding. It deserves to be produced again. And who knows, in the wake of the new Fifty Shades of Grey movie, maybe it will be…