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SHERRI'S BIRTHDAY

Georg Osterman

at Randolph Street Gallery

June 3 and 4

Randolph Street Gallery's director, Peter Taub, has already introduced this year many fine performance artists, and the most recent, Georg Osterman, is a consummate professional. He performed his original radio drama Sherri's Birthday with impressive skill, clarity, and passion, bringing to life in a solo performance a delightfully perverse world inhabited by 23 borderline psychotic characters. Despite the fact that, on the night I attended, only 11 people sat among rows of empty seats, Osterman's commitment to his material never waned. We felt welcome, lucky to have witnessed such an exciting evening.

Osterman, a graduate of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater Company and a veteran New York performer, displays an unrivaled expertise in mimicry. I've never seen a performer imitate so many people so well. For someone less skilled, merely keeping these 23 frantic characters straight would have been a Herculean task. But Osterman soars joyfully through his piece without missing a beat. Sherri's Birthday, a mock 1940s radio play, tells the story of eight-year-old Sherri's birthday party. People like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Truman Capote, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (as Baby Jane and Blanche, of course), and Popeye and the Oyls have magically been invited. Sherri, perceived by her oh-so-bland parents as a perfect angel, turns out to be a homicidal monster who pushes her grandfather and Joan Crawford, both in wheelchairs, down the cellar steps. As a result, Sherri is by the end consigned to Hades, where the Wicked Witch of the West signs her on as her personal assistant.

The play is a furiously paced romp that charmingly satirizes and celebrates many American pop culture icons of radio, television, and film. And what the piece lacks in coherence--the selection of characters seems dictated more by Osterman's ability to imitate a certain voice than by any thematic consistency--it more than makes up for in inspired parody. Sherri's Birthday is full of shticks. And awful shticks at that. When Tallulah Bankhead appears, described as wobbling unsteadily across the room, W.C. Fields comments, "Was that Tallulah I saw teetering? I know that teeter--I taught 'er." Osterman also creates some Burns and Allen routines that couldn't be more accurate. "We should call Shermlock Holmes," Gracie says when the dead bodies are found in the cellar. "Sherlock. Sherlock," corrects George. "Well sure, I locked the door. Why wouldn't I lock the door? We're in the middle of a murder mystery," responds Gracie.

Osterman loads his piece with kitsch, from the barrage of one-liners to the seamlessly introduced eclectic musical references--including, of all things, the Mr. Bubble theme--performed flawlessly on a funky little organ by James Stewart Bennett. In Osterman's hands, such nostalgic references, which could be dangerously cliched, are revitalized. In so much performance work in this vein, an artist will present just about any image of pre-Kennedy America in order to claim his or her own cynical place in contemporary culture--"Oh, aren't I hip here in the 80s, unlike these old brainwashed pinheads." Osterman unashamedly celebrates the world of radio drama, although he twists it a bit to make it fit his own brand of demented humor. And what's more, Osterman recognizes and respects the authenticity and integrity of his mass media icons. If nothing else, Osterman fills his schizophrenic birthday party with American originals, all of whom deserve their places in American pop mythology.

But Osterman is not merely a documenter, preserving the lost art form of the radio drama. He uses the medium of the radio broadcast to explore an issue central to much contemporary performance work--the presence or absence of the performer onstage. In many subtle ways, Osterman does his best to convince us that he is not in fact present. He enters the space in a modern black suit with a 40s flair, wearing pancake makeup and ultrafunky shoes, looking more like a stylized 40s caricature than a real person. With script in hand, he moves directly to the microphone and dives headfirst into his "broadcast," trying to sell something called bladder luncheon loaf. He never pauses to create a specific character for himself: he is not a particular announcer, or part of a particular radio station. Rather he immediately throws himself and his audience into the middle of things, as if he's just picked up where someone else left off. And as quickly as he is done selling bladder luncheon loaf, he is off on his birthday party story, speaking as a different character every three or four seconds.

The result is that the audience has no fixed reference point for this strange man reading into a microphone. He cannot be seen as part of a period piece because his modern suit and microphone are blatant anachronisms. He seems to waver between the present and the past. Disturbingly unidentifiable, he even holds a coffee mug on which only the word "Me" is stenciled. By creating this ambiguous presence for himself, Osterman in a way turns himself into a human radio, sending "disembodied" voices through the air, giving the audience only a few aural hints and letting them fill in the visual and narrative details themselves.

Juxtaposed with the nonpresence of the central performer is the sudden hyperreal presence of particular objects, manipulated by the "sound effects man," Andrew Kollmorgan. Not only does he use particularly ironic objects to produce the needed sounds--to imitate the sound of a woman fainting, he smacks a plastic baby doll's head on his sound effects table--but he often produces what appear to be the real objects described in the story. For example, when Glinda the Good appears on Sherri's doorstep to give Sherri a present, Kollmorgan simulates the sound of a present being opened by rattling some tissue paper in a box-and then pulls out a pair of red-sequined shoes. Sherri responds, "Oh, what pretty red slippers!" Because in the midst of this self-consciously fake radio drama we see the "actual" ruby slippers, suddenly two systems of belief become necessary: one that says, "Everything in this drama is make-believe," and the other, "The objects employed are undeniably real."

To Osterman's credit, he does not dwell on such notions, does not make his piece inappropriately intellectual. Certainly Osterman is out to entertain, but his intelligence infuses his work with greater food for thought. Like all artists worth watching, he is as concerned with the content of his work as with its style and articulation. Osterman is essentially a terrific actor, passionately tearing through his text like a fundamentalist tearing through the Old Testament. His piece was tight, well rehearsed, and charmingly presented by the three artists involved. I only hope that the disappointing turnout will not deter him from return engagements.

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