at Randolph Street Gallery, through September 25
Suffering and spiritual death, resurrection, and rebirth are at the heart of an exquisitely designed, visually arresting new work by Lynn Book, Gorgeous Fever. But Book, who has established herself in Chicago as an innovative performance and sound artist, both gets bogged down and goes adrift in this effort to address the thorny epic issues of sickness and redemption, in the persona of a woman victimized and trapped by her own myth of herself.
Gorgeous Fever begins with Book languorously arranged upon a fancy bed amid bedclothes, pillows, a fussy damask headboard, and a strange, ornate, eclectic assortment of bottles, lights, candles, and draperies. The set is framed by an aluminum four-poster construction from which hang curtains draped and swagged; one curtain is painted on what appears to be fiberboard.
As the audience enters Randolph Street's performance space, Book seems to be in some sort of opium daze, or perhaps she's portraying her character as drunk, feverish, or dying--it isn't quite clear at first. Her eyes glaze and cross; she blinks rapidly and makes an effort to focus elsewhere, but her eyes cross again, and she tries to focus again. Watching her is uncomfortable--it's as though we've entered a fairy tale, have accidentally walked into the secret room of an invalid/monster usually kept locked away. Should we look at her while we wait, or should we look away? This dilemma evokes the problematic issue in our society of recognizing and dealing with illness. As a nation, we tend to look away.
The complicated set, by Book with Christopher Furman and Shaz Kerr, and Ken Bowen's lighting are exquisite. As we watch Book upon the bed, we hear birds--and the sounds of breathing, of a train, of a horse neighing, and of gears screeching, and unidentifiable overlapping sounds. In the background we see an antique radio console and a table full of perfume bottles, various vases, and medicine bottles full of colored liquids.
As soon as everyone has been seated, a filmy, silken curtain closes and a light shines through it at the audience. Then another light seems to travel in a circular pattern throughout a portion of the gallery space, as though we were on a train and the lights from the passing countryside or cityscape were traveling across the walls through the windows. We might be witnessing her dreams and her nightmares. But this is also our cue that we're about to enter upon a journey of the soul. We see a woman on a bed, a filmy curtain, flashing lights and hear the most sharply articulated sounds (courtesy of the Experimental Sound Studio) I've heard during a performance piece: a cat in heat, something crashing, a horse, rain, steam.
Then the filmy curtain opens. Book is still on the bed, and her eyes are still half closed, glazed, as though she were looking but not looking. Now she seems a woman-goddess watching us from another galaxy, another universe. There is a sense of ruined divinity, of a fallen queen, but there is no remorse in her. She is regally impassive, ruling her universe from a bizarre little corner, wearing a flimsy nightgown (costume design by Christy Munch) that continually threatens to fall open and reveal a bare breast or her sex but miraculously stays in place. She begins her opening monologue with great drama, still on the bed, tossing her body around a bit, flinging an arm here or there for emphasis. Correcting, editing, and amending herself, she delivers a monologue that by turn describes insatiable hunger and thirst. Nature images abound, yet reveal little. Over and over the monologue returns to the question of addiction--appetite, thirst, and hunger.
Some of the following bits are successful, others are not--a wonderful shadow dance behind a shade, an embarrassing and strange bluesy, hip-swinging dance on a platform (a sort of last hurrah for the character), an eerie episode of the shakes or an overdose, a reading, another monologue (a bit muzzy), even a film (by Sharon Couzin) of Book with sparklers between her toes or massaging old-fashioned, domelike ceiling fixtures at each breast.
Throughout the piece there's a sense of denial--denial of illness, denial of appetite. Like the beautiful set, Book's monologues do not delineate but ultimately obfuscate, creating a haze of arresting images. Her audience is left wondering where this character is going, or even whether she really cares that she's ill. She sings a delicate song--half Indian raga, half lullaby--simultaneously as obscure and beautiful as anything else in the performance, seeming to address the stars. But because we don't understand the source of her despair, we can't identify with her, can't feel hope or fear.
Book is often a charming performer, but here, when she lapses into mugging, leering, and smiling, her spell is broken. She never really manages to crack the veneer of her character, nor does she truly maintain that veneer. If this character is sick in some way, we need to know why she's sick, beyond mere hunger. We need to eavesdrop on what 12-steppers refer to as a ruthless self-inventory, or learn to understand what Jung might refer to as her dual nature, good and evil--and realize the possibility of necessary evil bringing illumination.
This is a technically rich, even inspiring work that would have benefited from a few previews. The point of the piece is clear enough, but what Gorgeous Fever really needs is some careful reworking of the writing, some editing and refining, and some attention paid to making an emotional connection with the audience. The sheer amount of media probably made lengthy previews an impossible luxury, which is a pity. The details are careful and rich, yet there's no sense that Gorgeous Fever falls together as a whole. Given the chance to incubate, this could be a stunner.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny White.