At first, the title 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan might sound like it's daring you to clutch your pearls. But once you realize/remember it's a reference to the Zeus and Leda myth, it begins to take on the cloying feel of a graduate-school in-joke—and it is. While studying at Yale University (of course), playwright Kim Rosenstock took a class from Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatist Paula Vogel (of course), who gave her students an exercise: Write a play in 48 hours and delete nothing. "I just thought it would be funny to hand my fellow students a title page that said 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan," Rosenstock told This Stage magazine a few years ago when the play had its Los Angeles premiere. "So I had that title, I turned the page, and I wrote."
The resulting script is also cloying at times—in a let-me-show-you-how-educated-yet-sassy-I-am kind of way—while it scampers through sexual dramas in Greek myth, Renaissance Italy, Victorian England, and a writing class in contemporary Manhattan (of course!), where a man named Dave is trying to write all of these stories at once to combat his own forbidden desires. (Spoiler alert: He has a thing for cats.) Writing about writing is always a dangerous game: Things can get very solipsistic very quickly. And yet, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan has moments of beauty that shine through its fashionably jaded, snake-eating-its-own-tail conceit.
The play opens with a cheerful writing teacher named Fiona (Jonelle Jordan, looking like the Disney version of Snow White in her black wig and short-sleeved blue shirt) portentously reading one of her students' stories aloud to the class: "'Narcissus gazed at his stunning reflection in the rearview mirror without turning away... He was unconscious of the rain whipping his window. Unconscious of his Mazda charging toward the ravine. Unconscious of his car flying up and crashing back down, down, down and in, in, into the earth. And then. Unconscious. Forever. Because he was dead.' Beautiful work, Darlene." (That's the first in a long line of Swan's writing-about-writing gags.)
As the class ends, a catastrophically awkward older student named Dave (Ryan Higgins, who always brings a little extra zest and crazy-eyed intensity to his roles) approaches Fiona and tries to explain why he hasn't turned in any assignments yet: He went to the Met, saw a copy of Michelangelo's lost painting of Leda and the Swan, got inspired, and has been writing furiously ever since. The majority of Swan consists of scenes from his rambling, unfinished story, which ping-pongs through various eras and genres: the Spartan king Tyndareus (Martyn G. Krouse) who met his beloved Leda (Leah Salcido Pfenning) while walking through the woods, "looking for large rocks to throw at his enemies," and lost her to Zeus; the Italian painter Michelangelo (Devin Bannon who, full disclosure, works at The Stranger) taking a commission to paint Leda and the Swan in an Italian court full of sex and intrigue; and a Victorian household where Michelangelo's painting hangs and the sex and intrigue are more repressed. (In Italy, apparently, jealous lovers cut off each other's fingers; in England, they rattle teacups.)
Director Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir and designer Tommer Peterson have used paper as a central motif, which is proper for a piece of writing about writing: paper walls, paper dresses, paper hats, paper signs announcing which country we're in at any given time. As the production progresses, bundles of paper accumulate around the stage and the characters' feet while they dig themselves more deeply into hideous fates. And they're all hideous: Lovers are killed, genitals are stabbed, and a ridiculous porn start-up called DVEnt.com (which specializes in animals, kids, and poop) finds its seed capital. But for all its superficial salaciousness, and despite its energetic performances, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan has the bored, mechanical, compulsive feeling of a Marquis de Sade novel—it builds elaborately cruel situations and crunches its characters through the gears and wringers, but it doesn't know why. By the final scene, Swan feels like just another academic exercise. If you sucked out all the self-consciously naughty bits, the play would have nothing left to say.