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at Club Lower Links

January 30

A friend of mine, a performance artist, describes performance art as "whatever doesn't fit in any other category." I always rebel against this description, which I've heard before, because it makes performance art a genre by default rather than by definition. Still, I understand it, because I too tend to think of performance art in terms of what it's not rather than what it is.

Take, for example, New York-based performance artists Linda Mancini and Todd Alcott, who performed one night only, January 30, at Club Lower Links. Montreal-born Mancini comes to performance through dance and movement. Her work involves elaborate costuming, staging, props, and technology. It has overtones of theater, yet it's not quite theater. Alcott, originally from nearby Crystal Lake, is a playwright. His work relies on text. But the gonzo nature of his presentation resembles stand-up comedy more than theater--yet it's not quite stand-up.

Still, perhaps more than any other show in recent memory, this one was clearly performance art. It borrowed from whatever genre suited the needs of the performer and the piece. It was subversive. It was dark. It was funny. And weird. Both Mancini and Alcott go right to the edge. Mancini's characters all betray a quiet desperation. Alcott's all struggle with a simmering rage.

Though Mancini and Alcott wrote their shows individually, the manner of presentation at Club Lower Links--the two performers alternated with each other--fed each other's works in unanticipated ways. Gender issues in particular were underscored. Though they never interacted, by the end these two seemed different halves of the same couple, struggling with desire, repression, and an utter lack of communication.

It's not that the show was a boy/girl dialogue. In fact, there was little in the way of conventional relationships. But when Mancini, in "Wedding," subtly brought into question the groom's character, it wasn't hard to imagine that he might be the harmless-seeming serial killer in one of Alcott's pieces. And when Alcott talked about wanting to find paradise, Mancini came to mind as the beautiful, willing lover he's too self-centered to notice.

Mancini began the evening with "Cake," which comes complete with a Marvin Gaye sound track. Decked out in a white bodice, garters, birthday balloons, gaudy headgear, and "Happy Birthday" slogans, she enters what she thinks is a surprise birthday party for herself. But that's not exactly what she finds. Embarrassed, pouting, Mancini's character struggles with her desire, her absolute need for attention. "I know what I want, and I want it to be a surprise," she says. Later, blowing out the candles on her birthday cake one by one, she wishes for a job, for kitty litter that doesn't ever need to be changed, and for a bigger apartment. "I wish wherever I went, I was the center of attention," she says finally.

Alcott followed with a character who wants no attention at all, but just to be left to his own devices. As in all his pieces, Alcott performs while stalking a bare stage. "They said I was an abused child, a social rebel, that I had an extra Y chromosome," he yells, red-faced, as the serial killer with no pattern, no method, and no idea when he'll strike next. "The fact is, I just like to kill people. It's a calling, a task, like the church." This character, who readily admits he hasn't a clue about right and wrong, can't understand why, with death so commonplace all over the world, "when two co-eds get popped, everyone goes nuts." Comparisons with Jeffrey Dahmer are unavoidable, but Alcott doesn't back off an inch. "I'm not insane," he says, "I'm scary." And particularly since his bored midwestern murderer is so ordinary, as common as Dahmer, as common as the boy next door.

Random disaster seems imminent during Mancini's "Wedding," too. In an ingenious outfit that suggests a bridal gown, Mancini stands under a spotlight and, using only her facial expressions and limited movement, sketches a receiving line, a ceremony, a reception, dinner, dancing, and exquisite sex. Meanwhile she's engaged in a running dialogue with a sound track, which includes the voices of her conscience, miscellaneous relatives, girlfriends, the minister, the wedding guests, and her mother. Suddenly, with the most innocent joy and utter horror, she finds herself married to a complete stranger. When somebody on the sound track asks her whose name the house and car are under, and she says her husband's, the shocked voice responds "But what if something happens?" "Happens? No, nothing will happen," Mancini says, oblivious to all the ominous signs.

Alcott followed with "Paradise," a hilarious story about the quest for the divine on earth. In this piece, however, he reveals an annoying tendency toward tidy resolutions: the ending is embarrassingly predictable.

When Mancini returned, she offered up "Angelina Contadina," performed entirely in Italian. A funny, poignant story about immigration, isolation, and disappointment, it was surprisingly easy to follow even for a non-Italian-speaker like me. Using a basket of red, ripe tomatoes to represent her expansive family, Mancini takes us on a journey through excitement to resignation.

Alcott also performed "Look at Me," about control, and a rollicking final work about overstimulation in the big city. Mancini concluded the evening with a tightly choreographed, nearly silent piece about rituals and obsession. Together these two put on one of the best shows of the season.

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