Mary Hawley and Matthew Owens | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

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Mary Hawley and Matthew Owens




at Link's Hall, December 3 and 4

When complementary colors, such as red and green, are placed side by side, the result is often an illusion of vibration. Blend them and you get a new shade altogether, with little to remind you of the two initial colors. Performance artist Matthew Owens and poet Mary Hawley kicked off the "Worlds Colliding" series at Link's Hall (curated by Reader contributor Achy Obejas) with an entertaining and witty evening. Each performer was able to show off his or her individual colors, yet their collaboration brought a new shade into play. The set was austere but charming: the back wall at Link's was covered from one end to the other with the black outline of a cityscape, illuminated from behind by lighting from the floor. Black velvet curtains were draped on either side.

The evening was divided into three parts, two solos and a duet. Hawley performed first, reading new poems as well as older ones from her book, Double Tongues. Her style is subtle, spare, delicate yet lethally direct. Hawley is a good reader, projecting beautifully (without a microphone) and maintaining the audience's interest. One especially haunting poem, "La Judicial," tells how Hawley witnessed the police in a waiting room in Veracruz, Mexico, dancing with one another, radio blaring, in order to distract people from the screams of prisoners being tortured in an adjoining room. Hawley has a way of throwing curveballs in her writing: circumstances or emotions that begin one way seldom end up that way. (This quality also turned up in her collaboration with Owens.) By mingling ironies and opposites, by describing a reality at odds with itself, her writing closely duplicates the way thinking, memory, and experience work together in the mind. One senses that an impulse toward sentimentality was long ago dashed, and what remains is incredulity at tragedy and cruelty, which animates whatever Hawley describes.

Owens's solo was a strange little piece called Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes (which he describes in the program as a product of chronic insomnia). He sings Gilbert and Sullivan's song of the same title while wearing a pair of fake eyes attached to his own eyelids. With his top hat, morning coat, and floppy pants, the effect is comical and strange. He sings a phrase, then pauses, then sings the next phrase--and by pausing after each line surreally deconstructs the intent behind the words. What constitutes a "lucky man"? "A pair of sparkling eyes . . . a pair of ruby lips . . . a tender hand." The idea that possession of these assorted pieces of anatomy would mark one as "lucky" brought much laughter. The darker point is the tendency in our society to see a woman as an "object of affection," in terms of isolated parts instead of as a living, breathing whole. Owens underlines this with the fake eyes, as though emphasizing men's helpless culpability in this process of objectification--as though they've been at the mercy of their own unblinking, unthinking, unsleeping eyes. Compared to Hawley's cool, intellectual approach, Owens's is extremely visual and physical, almost slapstick--a vaudevillian sharing the stage with a poet.

The evening's finale was a meditation written by Hawley and performed by Owens and Hawley, with Carla Owens and a dog in supporting roles. The recorded text, which Hawley recites in a French accent, describes the musings of a chair in a restaurant who loves a table, though the chair once had an affair with an umbrella (hooked to its back) and at one time thought only other chairs existed.

Several vignettes acted out against the backdrop of this recorded text seem to bear little connection to it --except for the fact that everyone onstage is apparently in the same restaurant. Owens orders a glass of wine from maitre d' and silver sorter Carla Owens, walks his dog in a circle around the table, and gives the dog various commands while a strange mechanical figure on wheels--like a human being, but only from the shoulders up--comes to the table, circles it, and disappears behind the curtains. Hawley plays a tourist at first, wearing sunglasses, shooting pictures of the audience. Then she and Owens sit at the cafe table, order a loaf of bread, and begin to consume it from either end, suggestively, erotically, passionately, until the loaf is just a few inches long, at which point they collapse on the table exhausted.

Though the evening was short, the simple, accessible work had much charm and freshness. Obejas's intention is to combine artists who at first glance have little in common, and this evening was inspiring and rich--in part because blending these two artistic temperaments, like blending two complementary colors, brought unexpected results.

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