SLEEPLESS AND WITHOUT NURTURE
at the Bop Shop
A young woman grabbed a prop--a popcorn bucket--and placed it beneath the drips. The two performers carried on without so much as a glance at the water coming down from the ceiling center stage at the Bop Shop. The leak wasn't part of the performance, but in retrospect it added to a certain atmosphere against which all the performers that night struggled, from botched light and sound cues to laughter overheard from the comedy club in the next room. But the performances were all so interesting it didn't matter. In fact these occurrences seemed part of a long performance-art tradition: to perform in a spirit of experimentation, against and within the elements of chance and in far-from-ideal surroundings.
TranceSister Productions, which performs a different show once-monthly at the Bop Shop (the next is Saturday, October 24) seeks to provide a venue for "emerging [feminist] artists to present new works, as an alternative to the gallery and commercial theater structures." The company has a niche within a long and noble tradition-performance art has been the laboratory for artists from disciplines as diverse as painting, dance, theater, poetry, and film (to name just a few) who seek an opportunity to expand their vision. At the beginning of this century the Italian Futurist painter Giacomo Balla experimented with stage art by re-creating one of his paintings onstage and operating the lights for a "light ballet" at a Ballets Russes performance at Rome's Teatro Constanzi: the audience saw some 49 different settings (no dancers) in five minutes.
Inadvertently the performance art of the 1980s may have caused us to forget that experimentation is a valid and legitimate ideal. At that time performance was embraced by a larger public, and with acceptance came polish, with polish came reviews, and with reviews came a fear of experimentation. Perhaps because performance art has become more acceptable, and because the cabaret format has become an easy handle, we've forgotten that what often made performance art exciting in the first place was not knowing what might happen next: seeing work that was in the process of discovering itself.
I remember hearing about Ilona Granet's performance at N.A.M.E. gallery in 1978. She had spoken to the audience about her rape experiences, about the feeling of being preyed upon. She began to play a tape that recreated what various rapists had said to her. Meanwhile she went outside, and immediately a carful of men began harassing her--in full view of the audience, who watched through the picture windows at the old space on Hubbard Street. Just as the men got out of the car, local musician Emilio Cruz stepped out of a cab and walked her back into the gallery. This encounter happened entirely by chance. When Granet returned to the gallery she began to scream at the audience for watching passively and not coming to her rescue. Granet says now that she metamorphosed from a wisp of a woman to a wild woman before their eyes. "My obsession was that I wanted people in the audience to feel like rape victims. Chance drove that point home."
Experimentation and chance were in abundance during TranceSister Productions' Sleepless and Without Nurture, a selection of short performance works that, though they were not always polished, were always intriguing.
Jeannie Harithas Scanlan opened the evening with "A Hole Is to Dig." She walks onstage chomping gum, wearing faded black capri pants and turtleneck, a purple cowboy kerchief tied around her neck, her brown hair piled high on her head. She grins at the audience as she climbs into a huge, freestanding rococo skirt (it looks a little like a child's drawing of a cake) complete with lace, satin, pearls, and yards and yards of various mysterious fabrics draped and cascading. She calls out "Will someone please help, will someone please help me?" (I later found out she was genuinely stuck and genuinely panicked). No one raised a hand or came onstage, until finally a young man rushed up and helped her into the huge hoop-style skirt. Removing her scarf she reveals snake and butterfly "tattoos" all over her arms and neck. She has tattoos under both eyes, too, but unfortunately they're so small that even from two rows back they resemble football players' black smudges.
"Ever since I was a little girl I wanted a dress like this," Scanlan says. She stares at the audience for a few beats and then looks at her open hand (as though a telephone number were scribbled there). She turns her head, puts the palm to her chin, and turns back to the audience, chin on palm. Then she says, "I wanted you to see me like this." She spreads open the folds of her dress and reveals a black dresser with six drawers, which she begins opening and casting aside. Someone in the audience shouts "Nice box!" She ignores him. Later she says, "I didn't want you to see me like this."
When all the drawers are out on the floor around her, we see she's wearing little shorts and her legs are also covered with tattoos. She concludes the piece by emerging from the dresser headfirst--a contortionist emerging from a trick box. The guitarist, Mat Robinson, who has been playing electric guitar off and on throughout, resumes playing some minor chords. On the outside this woman is beautiful, but underneath she's scarified.
Next was Katharine Boyd's "We're Glad You're Back" (a work in progress), which continues her deconstruction of suburban and middle-class ideals and icons. (She played Jackie Kennedy earlier this year in a show of student work at N.A.M.E. Gallery.) This time she adopts a more indeterminate persona. Whoever she is, she appears dazed as she walks to center stage, brown wig askew, wearing a brown woolen shift, tiny carpet samples attached to her arms with bits of Velcro (which have been glued to her skin), neutral hose, and brown shoes. Boyd's rigorous attention to the details of set and costume has been carried out too in her entirely beige and brown color scheme, from the coffee she "pours" from her thigh to the brown spray-painted funeral bouquet she's placed at stage right to the brown and beige sculptured rug in the middle of the space.
Boyd turns on a tape, and we hear a man describing what one can expect from hypnosis. In his delivery we hear a million nervous mannerisms, from real voice strain to an almost compulsive clearing of the throat, that reveal his unspoken bid for the listener's trust. Boyd's voice, recorded over the tape, creates a strange duet. By contrast to his manipulative and forced "calm," her voice sounds true and clear. She crawls underneath the rug and makes it undulate with her body. She emerges to pour coffee from inside of her dress into little Styrofoam cups, which she passes to audience members. (Unfortunately, people a few rows back were unable to see her actions as she bent over, so the strength of this gross action--pouring coffee from her panty-hosed, dripping thigh--was lost.) Curiously, just as she began pouring the coffee, the ceiling over the audience began to leak, helping to create a real feeling of oppression, fear, loathing, and claustrophobia; meanwhile the voice on the tape continued to induce us to relax and trust, while Boyd chanted various grades, types, and colors of carpet. As the water steadily dripped from the ceiling, audience members seated at the table under seige got up and scattered to other tables.
There was something about the falling water, which continued to come down behind me, and the fact that no one seemed to have solved this snafu that created a general feeling of unease, sympathy, and giddy irreverence in the audience. When mistress of ceremonies Penelope Treat announced that Julie Laffin would be firing a cap gun during her piece, "Dear Neth," the man sitting next to me whispered, "She will be wearing a cap and firing a real gun . . . "
Laffin, coming forward with amazing presence and strength, managed to help us forget the leaking ceiling. Entirely encased in a dry-cleaning bag, she's holding a three-foot carp over one shoulder the way a woman of another era might have draped herself in a stole. Laffin also wears a black Barbie-doll "drop dead" evening gown, a small gun stuck firmly in her cleavage, and a black 60s-style wig (which like Katharine Boyd's is skewed to one side). Her dress, bust, and parts of her face are covered with black sludge, as though she's just climbed out of the Chicago River. She teeters this way and that as she sings to her carp (who has an amazing anthropomorphic quality). When it seems she must be on the verge of asphyxiation, she claws through the plastic bag. She talks back and forth to herself, to the audience, and to the carp in a pseudo male/tough/gangster voice. "I'm like the wind, you don't own me. I'm a lone wolf," she howls. She holds the gun first to her head, then to the carp. In her own voice she pleads to the audience "He was my man, we were intimate ... I know it's a crime ... murder is a crime ... suicide is a crime." She sings "Birds gotta swim, fish wanna fly, do I have to love these psychopaths till I die?" At this point the lighting technician missed the cue, and not everyone in the audience was able to get the full impact of Laffin's last, very important revelation when she threw off her wig.
Rennie Sparks's piece, "Dirtbags," is a tightly written, entertaining monologue. She sits on a stool in below-the-knee cut-off jeans, a rather odd sleeveless shirt with a cyclist speeding. across the front, crumpled socks, and black shoes that match her black hair and eyeglasses. Wearing bright red lipstick that contrasts beautifully with her porcelain skin, she tells the story of her relationship with Debbie, her precocious and provocative best friend in high school who wore mail-order bras and, tragically, tended to do almost anything with anyone if she was given the right mixture of alcohol and psychotropic drugs. This curious story is full of vivid, richly detailed memories and irreverent funny-sad anecdotes, and Sparks's delivery is easy, low-key, and well-timed.
Anna Brown and Rob Van Tuyle performed "Mr. and Mrs. Bourgeois Savant," a send-up of yuppie mores and greed and a rather thin, but haunting, exploration of heterosexual despair and ambivalence. It was during their performance that the ceiling began leaking for the second time, almost directly stage center. This piece has a surface farcical quality that seems to resist the faint undertow of melancholy. The leak seemed to break their concentration somewhat, but it also made the piece seem darker. And if this dark undercurrent were developed more fully, the performers might be able to transcend their personas as mere clowns to become surreal, frightening, dark creatures--as intriguing and degraded, perhaps, as Bobcat Goldthwait's recent Shakes the Clown. And Brown's presence creates a real, true, charismatic magic onstage. It will be interesting to see how these two skilled performers develop this piece.
One of the things Sleepless and Without Nurture showed me, which we should have known already from early performance artists, is that art needs to be ambivalent even about itself in order to grow, develop, and reflect the times of which it is such a vital part. If art is ambivalent, experimentation is possible. Where else but in performance do you have the opportunity to see an artist discovering, editing, inventing, and refining all at once? And what could be more exciting than that?