NOT FOR REAL
As I watched Leonard Pitt begin his one-man show, Not For Real, I thought, it's true, anyone can be a performance artist. All you have to do is assemble some odd and arbitrary actions, put them in front of an audience, and presto! Performance art!
I might defend that assertion by listing random examples of what Pitt does onstage: He drops little wads of paper onto the floor and shines a flashlight briefly on each one. He "sips" the meaning out of various books with a straw. He eats his "face"--a skintight mask. He delivers a sales pitch for an "antigravitational reinforcement device with remote control."
I could go on. Pitt does--for 70 minutes, to be exact. But such grumbling would miss the point entirely. Saying that anyone could be a performance artist is like saying a four-year-old could splatter paint on a canvas the way Jackson Pollock did. It's true in a way--anyone can ham it up in front of an audience just as anyone can throw paint around. But this ingenious little spectacle devised by Pitt and his collaborator, Rinde Eckert, is unique.
My problem with Not For Real at first was that I expected some sort of logical, linear narrative that employed symbolism and metaphor to develop a theme. Forget that. Pitt's performance is more akin to dance, consisting of playful, impressionistic gestures designed to have emotional appeal, not intellectual impact.
However, Pitt does play around a bit with the idea that the mind and the body are separate--a notion he seems to find simplistic. For example, while impersonating an aggressive salesman, wearing glasses with deranged eyes painted on the lenses, Pitt recounts Rene Descartes' discovery of this duality within humans: "Descartes was just sitting around, thinking of buying a new hat, and he asks his friend Francis what he thinks," says Pitt's salesman, breathlessly.
"Francis looks at him and says, 'Well Rene, my heart says yes, but my head says no,' and Rene says, 'That's it! If we could split the self like that we could double our inventory. I declare the mind and the body separate!'"
This antagonism between the mind and the body, or, more precisely, between the intellect and the more emotional, intuitive aspect of humans, is depicted in several ways. Before he enters his "bookish" phase, the character Pitt has created dons goggles and gloves and shows his pet bird the maps on the back wall. The voice of a woman is heard saying, "He couldn't get her out of his mind, but he couldn't remember her face. There was always too much to read." While books prevent him from enjoying the simple sensual pleasure of recalling a woman's face, they still arouse visceral responses that intrude on pure intellectual appreciation. One book conjures a bitter, violent argument between a man and a woman, so Pitt throws the volume down and shoots it with a pistol. He develops a "taste" for pornography, and starts eating his books; a turgid philosophical treatise is so unpleasant he spits it out. Another book, obviously lightweight stuff, simply floats toward the ceiling, with Pitt struggling furiously to hold it down.
That book is not attached to any wires. Pitt is also a mime, and he magically lifts it up while struggling to hold it down. Pitt studied mime in Paris with Etienne Decroux, the teacher of Marcel Marceau. After that, Pitt went to Bali to see the mask theater that's so popular there. He doesn't go out of his way to incorporate mime or exotic theater techniques, but his use of controlled movement and masks is impressive.
While Pitt's antics may seem arbitrary, the show is actually well planned. Little gestures amplify his intent. While impersonating Louis XIV, he tells the story of the emperor who ignored the song of a real nightingale in favor of a mechanical model, which eventually broke down. While telling the story, Louis uses a translating device (actually a portable tape recorder), which, of course, malfunctions.
So rather than expound on an idea, the way a playwright might, Pitt strives to create images and associations that present his point of view. Grasping each allusion is not essential. In fact, many gestures seem to be in the show just for the fun of it--for example, he uses a toothpick in his mouth as a conductor's baton.
But the images--delightful in their own right--accumulate into ideas anyway. The difference is that these ideas are firmly linked to emotions and intuition, and therefore are somehow more organic, more honest than mere intellectual debate. Early in the show, a woman's voice asserts that "ideas are the things that count; nothing else is for real"--a notion that Pitt deftly refutes with his show.