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I Married Wyatt Earp

Lucky Pierre, through May 16

By Justin Hayford

On November 15, 1997, at five o'clock in the evening the five members of Lucky Pierre checked in to room 103 of the Morton Grove Best Western. For the next 24 hours they stayed there and watched westerns on video. As they write in their program, "This began the rehearsal period for 'I Married Wyatt Earp.'"

There's always been something monkish about Lucky Pierre's approach to performance, from their cryptic, repetitive texts delivered in incantatory fashion to their cloisterlike space with its boarded-up windows. Watching these artists, it was easy to imagine that they'd been holed up in some airtight room for months while their obsession with American culture sent them into a ridiculous collective swoon. Investigating the beguiling banality of popular entertainment in their debut piece two years ago, No No, I Was Sleeping You Know, they ended up on a conference table doing the twist. Seeking spiritual enlightenment from sports superstars in Happiness, they frolicked in bear costumes.

But with I Married Wyatt Earp, Lucky Pierre has pushed monkishness to an extreme, resulting in the group's most mysterious and intricate piece to date. The space itself suggests an enhanced insularity. Stereo equipment is mounted at either end of the room, and 16 speakers are suspended from the ceiling; it's as if the artists wanted to create enough sound to effectively obliterate the outside world. Also at either end of the space are small makeshift stages with dainty aprons of fabric, each the platform for a telegraph machine. (These artists need send their messages only as far as the other side of the room). The space is rigged with several other contraptions--a moving toy train, a counterweighted harness, suspended light switches--that make the room feel like a jury-rigged command center assembled piece by piece.

In the middle is a floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtain. When closed, it divides the space into two tiny theaters, each with its own stage and half an audience. The curtain's lush Technicolor intrusion into Lucky Pierre's makeshift workroom mirrors the aesthetic duality of Hollywood westerns, which attempt to paint a harsh, unforgiving world in rich, romantic strokes.

A similar duality informs much of I Married Wyatt Earp, as the sweep of the mythic American west continually collides with the clunky utility of contemporary life. The piece begins with the red curtain closing. In one half of the room Noah Loesberg sends a telegraph message to Joseph Silovsky, hunched over his machine on the other side of the room. Loesberg's message is clearly devoid of information--it's nothing but a series of steady clicks, as if he were keeping time. Silovsky listens intently on his headphones until the tapping stops, says "Ouch," then hangs a sign reading "625 miles" on the table where he sits. The process is repeated, with Loesberg sending the same droning clicks and Silovsky uttering "Ouch" and posting a sign that indicates a quantity: one mouthful, eight bushels, an arm's length.

It's the kind of moment at which Lucky Pierre excels, combining a series of simple fragments into an inexplicably evocative whole. It's never clear whether any message is actually sent or received, although the methodical insistence of the telegraph provides a sense of comic foreboding. On one level Silovsky's tallies are meaningless, since we never find out what he's measured to reach these totals. Yet his somber bearing suggests that these amounts may indicate all that's left of something once great and vast.

That great, vast thing may be the American west. For though Silovsky continues to hang signs on his table, he also spells out an entirely different message one word at a time: "Tread fast and joyfully down the open trail before us. Ouch." Michael Thomas joins Silovsky onstage, writing on an enormous chalkboard "The western always ends in a climactic act of violence. Ouch." But of course Thomas's message is wrong: westerns always end in a climactic act of simulated violence, as Mary Zerkel makes clear by strapping on a vest lined with small charges that explode to simulate striking gunshots.

The performers execute similar routines throughout, simultaneously evoking and banalizing images from Hollywood westerns. They present a puppet version of the shootout at the O.K. corral, moving cutout pictures of themselves across a tabletop while Thomas plays honky-tonk music on a minuscule toy piano. To add "excitement" the performers draw plastic guns on one another, and one shouts, "Don't shoot, I'm not armed! Or something to that effect!" Later Loesberg and Vincent Darmody, playing Earp and Doc Holliday, ride the range--on sawhorses. Silovsky is tossed down the length of a simulated bar (actually just a wooden platform mounted atop the sawhorses) again and again, and each time Zerkel smacks him over the head with a flat hunk of sugar glass cut in the shape of a beer bottle.

In all these sections the performers remain emotionally neutral, as though simply executing tasks. This lack of connection between them and the actions they perform creates a curious melancholy despite the silly scenes. It's as if they ached to recapture some part of frontier romanticism--or at least its cinematic equivalent--yet have created an utterly actual world in a windowless room that cannot maintain that romanticism. Lucky Pierre has rigged everything in the space to exacting specifications, achieving an impressive technical precision: everything the performers need, from a remote control for the stereo to a horse head for the sawhorse, is within arm's reach. The west has been scaled down to a well-tailored tool belt. But unlike life on the western plains, nothing here is grand or sublime. As Darmody, describing himself as an urban dweller, laments, "The only things bigger than me are trees and clouds. I'm an expert in loneliness."

I Married Wyatt Earp gets a bit bogged down in the middle, with the performers reciting too many seemingly random lines from movie westerns and/or posing too many times in rough-and-tumble tableaux vivants. Compared to the rest of the piece, these sections hold little interest: they're at once too literal to intrigue us and too arbitrary to communicate. Delivering decontextualized line after decontextualized line stalls the piece, giving it a uniform pace. And it's easy to feel that you're supposed to make some literal sense of the lines, especially since many are repeated several times; yet no cumulative meaning emerges.

Lucky Pierre do best when they speak for themselves rather than parroting Hollywood cliches. One of the piece's funniest sequences is a voice-over listing words that Wyatt Earp never said: "quintessential," "genre," "line judge," "Patty Hearst," "Christian rock," "polenta." With this simple text Lucky Pierre encapsulates our ambivalence about the American west. We mythologize the time of Wyatt Earp for its supposed political and cultural simplicity yet struggle to rid ourselves of the bluntness that continues to make Americans the rubes of the world. Few companies in town are able to suggest such complex truths by means so simple.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited theater still.

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