One of the most beautiful women in the world is coming to Boston to talk about sex.
Isabella Rossellini, the actress, model, and filmmaker, brings her one-woman theatrical production “Green Porno, Live on Stage” to the Cutler Majestic Theatre for three performances beginning Friday.
But anyone planning to spice up Valentine’s Day with the suggestively titled show should take note: It likely won’t be too titillating for anyone, unless there are some snails, whales, or hamsters in the audience.
Rossellini is an enigmatic film presence still best known for her breakout role in David Lynch’s deliciously twisted “Blue Velvet,” as well as her long tenure as the very visible face of Lancôme, the French cosmetics and perfume maker. But her venture onto the stage is an offshoot of a quirky, biologically minded Web series that has proven an unlikely late-career hit.
“Green Porno, Live on Stage” is an adaptation of the series of short films, produced by SundanceTV, in which Rossellini explains the reproductive habits of a wide variety of creatures. She is aided in this rather humorous effort by winningly low-tech costumes and sets, many made from paper. In one film, she’s dressed as a whale with a 6-foot phallus. In another, hands jut into the frame to grab at her face, as introduction to the violent mating practices of ducks.
“My interest is animal behavior. I don’t want to have a career as a scientist, I just like the subject. It’s interesting to me, and sometimes I might use it as a base for what I write,” Rossellini, 62, says in a phone call from her home in New York. “People have the same response [to the live show] as the films, which is to first laugh and then to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’”
The show, which Rossellini has been touring around the world since its initial French-language debut in 2013, takes the appearance of a scientific lecture that turns very wacky, very quickly. She co-wrote the script with well-credentialed French writer Jean-Claude Carrière (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), and actress Muriel Mayette is credited with “artistic guidance.”
Rossellini appears onstage in two rather conservative outfits before finally donning a fuzzy hamster costume. Puppetry and props have a role as well. Scenes from the films and other visual aids are shown on a large screen upstage.
The first season of “Green Porno,” shown on the Sundance Channel as well as on the Web, appeared in 2008 and quickly gained a cult following. It spawned an accompanying book and two spinoff series, “Seduce Me” and “Mammas,” the latter produced by and shown on the European television network Arte. In various iterations, Rossellini says she’s now written, directed, and appeared in some 40 short films on wildlife mating and related topics. Most range between two and four minutes.
One series of episodes focuses on marine creatures popularly eaten by humans, with explicit messages about overfishing and wildlife conservation. Conservation zoologist Dr. Claudio Campagna, who consulted on and appears in these episodes, says Rossellini brought the right package of skills to make it all work. “Isabella has the heart of a conservationist, the mind of an animal behaviorist, and the spirit of an artist,” he writes in an email.
Rossellini was already taking graduate courses in animal behavior at Hunter College in New York City when she was initially approached about developing a thematic series of short films for the Web and TV.
“Mostly I’ve done sex because I thought that the public at large is more interested in sex. I could have done different respiratory systems or different digestive systems but I don’t think they would have had the same volume [of interest]. Sex always works,” she says, breaking into a laugh.
Indeed, part of the films’ strange charm — and by extension, that of the stage adaptation — is the way they play off of Rossellini’s public persona as sex symbol and a queen of serious art-house cinema. (She is, of course, the daughter of film royalty: actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini.)
“Her deadpan style is essential to the humor,” remarks Miranda Banks, an assistant professor at Emerson College who has written about fashion and visual culture, “but also to our sense as audience members that we should trust her and indulge in the fantastic world she creates from real animal behavior.”
‘Mostly I’ve done sex because I thought that the public at large is more interested in sex. I could have done different respiratory systems or different digestive systems but I don’t think they would have had the same volume [of interest]. Sex always works.’
When Rossellini turns her head to the camera and says “Sadomasochism excites me,” as she does in one film, it lands like a sly echo of her scenes in “Blue Velvet” with the sexually sadistic character Frank Booth. But this time, she’s wearing a fairly ridiculous snail costume. (Male snails, it turns out, stab their partners with a sort of dart before mating.)
When asked about this subtext, Rossellini says it is not part of her creative intent.
“I don’t know their image of me or what they expect me to do,” she says of viewers and audiences and their preconceptions about her persona. “People are not saying ‘I don’t want you to do this’ or ‘I’m disappointed.’ I just do the work and I try to be funny and people laugh.”
Indeed, sadomasochistic snail sex has probably never seemed so funny.Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.