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Escape Routes From Hell


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Joe Goode Performance Group

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 25-27

The netherworld of the male prostitute has been the subject of many works, from such introspective films as Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho to Hollywood's watered-down Midnight Cowboy. The life of a male prostitute is almost universally described as a hell on earth. Jean Genet, who rose up from that netherworld, wrote such shocking plays that they were quickly termed the Theater of Cruelty. The degradation of male prostitutes is especially poignant in this country, because most hustlers are runaway teenagers who sell their bodies to survive.

Joe Goode's Convenience Boy is a new look at this old world. His key figure is the Convenience Boy, a boy who joyfully consumes the convenience products that surround him, from Big Macs to disposable top-40 radio hits. At the same time Convenience Boy is himself a product, a shiny, new, well-packaged product that is, above all, convenient. Convenience Boy, who loves products but hates being a product, traps himself in his own hell.

Goode hasn't yet figured out what to do with this dead-on character. Instead of developing a plot or finding a dramatic conflict, Goode uses his gift for quick, humorous sketches to invent many characters with different slants on convenience products: sunny, perky Kathy begins buying kitchen appliances obsessively, telling herself that a woman with the kind of childbearing hips she has must learn how to cook. A clerk in a convenience store fantasizes about murdering the customers, who treat him little better than a dispensing machine. The clerk also fantasizes about becoming a torch singer whose walk says, "I can trash you with these notes; I can burn."

Much of Goode's attention goes to demonstrating the destructiveness of our obsession with packaging. A character named Gordon is such a perfect product that no one will touch him; at 33 he's still a virgin. An unnamed woman wants to strip the fancy packaging off her lovers and get down to the raw fact of inflicting pain on them. This sadist metamorphoses into a masochistic woman who fantasizes about being "compliant, agreeable, having intimate dialogues about personal things," but having too little time she must "sink her [Cupid's] arrows in deep."

Goode proposes several ways of liberating Convenience Boy from his hell. At one moment during a voice-over, a Convenience Boy named Jeffrey says, "I'm just out here trying to cheer people up, more or less. They just make contributions for my circumstances." Jeffrey tries to worm his way out of hell by straightforwardly affirming that he is a product; he tries to be a good product and a good businessman.

Another way out of hell is through other people. In a plaintive section, we hear the voices of several teenagers saying that the most important thing is to have someone to talk to. One young man says, "Even if they don't have any answers, and even if they're not responsive, you know, I just need a body. The worst feeling is when you realize you're like totally alone." This simple remedy is undercut in the next section, which shows a man behind a torn chain-link fence shouting at a woman sulking in the opposite corner. He yells at her, "Why are you so angry? Why are you so unresponsive?"

Their subsequent duet illustrates better than any words the difficulty of intimate relationships--it begins with a splendid move in which the man throws the woman into the air as she arches away from him. After a series of lifts, including one in which the man is crouched on the woman's hip as she trudges toward side stage, the couple achieve a wordless reconciliation.

The path out of hell that Goode finally presents is finding a sense of place in the world, a place that is home. But most of the fun of Convenience Boy comes in the garish theatrical images Goode devises: a torch singer in drag twirling a baton with Christmas lights at the ends; a dominatrix making her costume out of aluminum foil; a romantic dance that takes place amid bushels of leaves that have been dropped from overhead, followed immediately by a man with a leaf blower blowing the leaves and dancers around. But these images--which the audience thoroughly enjoyed--seemed as oily as potato chips and as sweet as candy to me, just another convenience product Goode was selling to us.

The dancing (by Marit Brook-Kothlow, Elizabeth Burritt, Suellen Einarsen, Goode, and Wayne Hazzard) was excellent throughout, but Goode's choreography has problems. The text and theatrical images overwhelm the dance sections, and often seem to be interludes unrelated to the rest of the work. Goode doesn't connect the phrases enough that the dancers can gather momentum; as a result, the dances do not have much kinetic appeal. Many of them are duets, which makes sense for these stories about failed intimacy. And many of the duets have lovely moments, but they all have the same level of energy and rhythm, so the dances blend together in memory.

Goode's gallery of characters contribute sharp insights about the covert conspiracy between victim and victimizer. But by shifting the blame from them, and claiming that both are simply victims of society, Goode pursues a questionable logic and a questionable course. The didactic air of a social critic rather than the liberating spirit of an artist hangs over this piece.

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