Kickin' the Devil Around
Xsight! Performance Group
at the Blue Rider Theatre, July 11 and 12
By Jack Helbig
"Anybody can be good in the country," Lord Henry languidly opines in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet urbanites tend to have contradictory attitudes toward life in the country: it's either a safer, more innocent place than the evil city (like the Forest of Arden in As You Like It or Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show), or it's a dangerous, scary place where every man beats his wife, every sister marries her brother, and every bend in the river hides gun-toting, sodomizing Deliverance inbreds.
City dwellers split rural Americans into either representations of simple angelic goodness or of evil and untamed sexuality for one basic reason: Country people are not us. They are the other, and so they become the screen on which we project our yearnings and fears. They don't live like us, eat like us, wear their hair like us. They are hillbillies, country folk, trailer trash. They are dirtier than us, dumber than us, more vulgar and animallike--or they're wiser, nobler, more spiritually aware, and more in touch with their inner selves. Those who need to see Eden in rural America will see it, in Hooterville and Branson, Missouri. And those who need to find Gehenna will find it too, among the dumb, rapacious good ol' boys who populate exploitation films like Gator Bait and Billy Jack.
But the best works refuse to take one side or the other. Instead they wink at us, knowingly presenting a distorted sugarcoated or shit-smeared version of reality. Or, like Al Capp in the best years of L'il Abner and the folks who created the 60s sitcom Green Acres, they embrace the contradictions, showing that both views of rural life, Edenic and hellish, are false.
The folks who put together Xsight! Performance Group's Kickin' the Devil Around--Brian Jeffery and Stephan Mazurek are credited in the program as the providers of the "original concept"--follow this tack in their messy, sprawling, sometimes moving, sometimes hilarious, sometimes just plain tiresome show. Leaping into the contradictions, they riff on the theme of trailer trash over two frantic hours, canvassing all the stereotypes of po' white folks. (Even the scene titles sound like notes from a brainstorming session: "Creation," "Transformation," "Fornication," "Inebriation," "Damnation," "Confession," "Absolution," "Celebration," "Masturbation," "Destruction.") Thus one scene is a parody of the hypocritical preacher, constantly calling for money. In another a chorus of dirty, shiftless, ill-dressed folks right out of Tobacco Road go through the motions of daily life: women churn butter and tend to the cabin, men hunt and fight and bond, and in the evening the ill-bred couples fuck and fight and fuck again. Yet another scene pokes fun at B movies featuring pickup trucks with gun racks and the busty women in daizy dukes who drive them. Even the costumes run the gamut of rural stereotypes, from dirty coveralls, smudged housedresses, and slutty cutoffs to neat Nashville-style jeans and plaid flannel shirts for men and proper square-dance skirts for women.
Through it all slithers the devil, who sometimes watches from a platform, sometimes walks among the characters, leading them into sin, and sometimes, like God, turns his back on the shenanigans onstage, fixing himself some breakfast (fittingly, pan-fried bacon).
If all this sounds like a dance-performance version of Milly May Smithy, the fault is mine. Because the folks at Xsight! never lower themselves to Brigid Murphy's Minnie Pearl-esque obviousness. They have come not to repeat old stereotypes but to destroy them. Sometimes they comment on cliches by casting against type, making graceful, artful Marianne Kim a coarse hillbilly girl. Or they travesty the stereotype, as when the goateed Peter Carpenter dons a wig and stuffed bra to play a trashy, pistol-packing country girl. At other times the subversion is accomplished through more pointed satire. A sweet, charming pas de deux in the Agnes de Mille style is interrupted by a second pair of performers who, in a bit of hilarious Aristophanic mischief, make the sexual subtext of the courtship dance blindingly obvious: the man is given an enormous erection, while the woman's response is more subtly indicated with a suggestive two-handed gesture.
Mostly, though, the performers avoid falling into any single stereotype by packing their show with so many cliches they cancel one another out. Thus country men are portrayed as tender lovers and wife beaters, drunkards and hard workers, muscle-bound lunkheads and slippery, smooth-talking sharpies. This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink style of performance does have its downside, however: after a while the show (and the audience) begins to groan under the weight of all the information. And once that happens, even the wittiest take on a shopworn character grows tiresome. A show as loosely organized as this one is doubly susceptible to such overload.
Kickin' the Devil Around could have ended any time after the first 90 minutes or so, and we would have gone home happy. But after revving us up with one high-energy performance after another, continuously building the level of Dionysian chaos, the Xsight! folks tried to cool the house down with some sublime, graceful, if a little baffling choreography, which left me wanting less.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Mazurek.