After a week of disappointing plays, leave it to Isabella Rossellini to revivify our love of theater through her obsession with animal reproductive behavior. “Tonight we’re going to talk about sex, right? Good,” she begins, entering the stage in a modest black dress and pearls and occasionally donning thick-rimmed orange eyeglasses. Green Porno, her subsequent lecture (or “conference,” as she calls it), traces her lifelong interest in ethology. As an actor, she informs us, she has always slid into the skin of her characters, and now she does the same with animals, supplementing her seventy-five minute talk with short films in which she acts out animal sex wearing handmade costumes (Michel Gondry, eat your heart out) and never dropping an earnest, straight-faced tone. The result is a fascinating tour of this unusual kingdom; peppering her light Italian accent with endearing foreignisms like similtude and scientifical, Ms. Rossellini emotionally anthropomorphizes her subjects, creating such charming notions as sea lion harems, labyrinthine duck vaginas, and transvestite cuddlefish (those “sneaky males”).
Green Porno largely succeeds because Ms. Rossellini never indicates whether she finds her performance ridiculous or not. Dressed as a snail, she informs us—with the pride and glee of a five-year-old showing off his favorite toy—“I can withdraw my entire body into my shell where I can hide my vagina and my penis. I have both!” Our only indication of a twinkle behind her eyes comes when, chuckling, she notes that her installation A Forest of Penises (“I built twenty-two, more or less”) is currently on display at the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto. Still, no matter the topic, she is always professorial: “Now, who do you think has the longest penis in the world? Any ideas?” There is, too, a warmth to the entire project; her father, the neorealist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, always bemoaned his inability to experience pregnancy and once told an interviewer, “I am a Jewish mother.” His daughter is likewise a passionate and loving matriarch among her family of beasts.
Lest this all sound a little monotonous, Ms. Rossellini’s initial question—“Why does sex exist?”—prompts her into a wide range of investigations, from the spectrum of sexuality to the construction of gender to existential angst. She even takes a shot at the Biblical Noah, asking how his policy of one male and one female per species handled parthenogenetic (asexual) creatures. Really, there is no way to understate the value of Green Porno, a wholly intelligent, hysterical, and human show. Grazie, Isabella.