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From Down Under to Iberia 

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Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
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Sometimes a penis is just a penis -- just ask Simon Morley and David Friend, the two performers who stretch, pull and twist their members into various shapes as they demonstrate ”the ancient Australian art of genital origami.“ After seeing their popular two-hander, Puppetry of the Penis, audiences will never again look upon the male organ in quite the same sexed-up way. Morley and Friend curatorially refer to their contorted creations as ”installations“ -- there are ”The Hamburger,“ ”The Windsurfer“ and, perhaps, most infamous, ”The Eiffel Tower.“ In conversation at the Coronet Theater, however, the men easily slip into a more down-to-earth Down Underism -- ”dick tricks.“

The pair met and became friends in 1993 after Morley, now 35, who had been performing such below-the-belt legerdemain in provincial pubs, heard there was competition in town -- ”Friendy.“ That there could be two men in any one place bending, folding and spindling their cocks for popular entertainment is not so unusual for Australia, which has a long tradition of such lavatory theater sports. In a way, dick tricks are one of the shiniest emblems of Australia‘s bloke culture: a rough-hewn, lager-centric world of physical stamina and wicked irony that Americans only catch glimpses of in movies. Morley and Friend’s genius lies in how successfully they transferred their parlor tricks into larger arenas. Still, the men didn‘t pair up as an act until 1998, and their early days on the road were primitive theater in a Mad Max sort of way.

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”We did shows in cattle stations in the far north,“ Morley says of their first Australian gigs. ”We’d stand on an old Chevy ute [utility truck] with hay bales around it, a sheet hanging between some trees, and people would just shine torches on our genitals.“

But the Edinburgh Fringe Festival beckoned in 2000, and it was there that the lads first became a hit, fortuitously catching the eye of one person in particular.

”He was this bubbling big gay man who came up to us after the show,“ says Morley. ”He‘d been sitting next to a lady who literally wet her pants, and knew he was watching something special.“

The man was stage producer David Johnson (Trainspotting, Shopping and Fucking, Sing-Along Sound of Music), who booked them a run in London’s West End. From there, Morley and Friend went to New York‘s Houseman Theater, to Toronto and now to L.A., complete with several videos, a DIY book and a line of merchandise.

The show, whose video projections ensure everyone a good view, features Morley and Friend naked except for sneakers and capes (which they soon doff); Puppetry displays no profanity and no clearly defined funny-straight-man relationship between its comics. Morley looks like a bartender with soulful eyes, while Friend, sporting a trimmed mustache and flattop, might be a philandering track coach on a happy-hour prowl. Morley admits to being the more toned-down of the two onstage, but instead of him playing Abbott to Friend’s Costello, the men say they lapse into a kind of good-cockbad-cock dynamic.

Despite the seeming abuse the men administer to their organs, they say there is no pain involved in the installations, although Friend deadpans that the stretching on his circumcised member has caused a kind of foreskin to reappear. Nor, incredibly, has Puppetry suffered any legal hassles, although at first it was touch-and-go in London.

”The Westminster council showed up,“ Friend says, ”because originally they thought we were running a sex venue. So we performed in front of a row of archetypal Englishmen with bowler hats and umbrellas. They had been one step away from putting in an injunction against the show when, around ‘The Eiffel Tower,’ they put down their pens and papers and began to enjoy it.“ (The pair especially tempted fate by performing a ”Portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh“ -- by hanging a picture frame over their penises.)

Inevitably, Puppetry has come in for its share of analysis.

”A few people have wanted to do theses on us,“ Friend says. ”We‘re well aware of the sexual implications of the show, but we just go along with our business. Some people will find it demystifying, others educational. Some will find it a good old belly laugh.“

”Someone,“ says Morley, ”said our show was the antithesis of The Vagina Monologues, because women like to talk about ’it‘ and men like to show it. If there’s one thing a man learns to do very early on, it‘s how to handle his own genitals.“

He and Friend, however, dispute the analogy between Eve Ensler’s show and theirs, although Friend readily admits Puppetry has a counterpart of sorts. ”Those kinds of shows already exist in Thailand,“ he says, ”where girls fire Ping-Pong balls or blow smoke rings.“

The men plan on breaking in the show at the Coronet for the first week or two before handing it over to replacements who were chosen from an audition process that keeps the franchise running in the U.K., Canada, Australia and New York.

”We get a lot of nutbags coming out of the woodwork,“ says Morley of the auditions. ”We give them a few installations that we want them to perform and ask to see one or two of their own. We‘ve had boys light their pubes on fire and call it ’The Bush Fire‘ -- which they can only do once every four weeks.“

”And we had this one skinny little guy about 55 years old audition in New York,“ recalls Friend. ”He made good money at his job but basically auditioned to show that he had the biggest cock in New York. You get little golden moments like that.“

For now, Morley and Friend are living it up at West Hollywood’s Le Montrose, riding high on a tour they never thought would last beyond two years. Still, they have no plans to pump up and change their act to keep it new.

”We‘ll just milk this cash cow for whatever we can,“ says Morley, ”and then move on with our lives.“

Puppetry of the Penis previews Tuesday and Wednesday, August 13 and 14, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood. It opens on Friday, August 16, 7 p.m., and runs indefinitely Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday through Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Call (310) 657-7377.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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