jim feast

Review of The Connection

Review of The Connection(At the Living Theater, December 31 to February 13. Directed by Judith Malina; Music by Rene Mclean; director of production, Gary Brackett, stage manager, Erin Downhour)

Certainly anything Piscator staged would have the same unifying thread in that one set of illustrative usages would be prominent. A character, say, Nora Helmer, was herself but she would also be a congery of class attributes, displayed in her personality, relationship patterns and actions, such as her break with her husband. According to this German director, what Nora did served as an exemplar of social forces (such as the Norwegian suffragette movement), not personal choice. In an interview, Judith Malina put it like this this: “Piscator felt that the actor was duty bound to make his or her performance an explanation of this character's position in the social structure [and the characterization of that structure] always has to have a Marxist base.” She added, somewhat wryly, “If I have a play about pretty chorus girls kicking their legs that's also about the social structure, because who the hell are they and why are they kicking their legs like that?”

One has to ask, though, does the Living Theatre, which broke from Piscator’s teaching in order to define a less mechanistic, more anarchist dramatic practice, show the same sort of consistency? The question is not meant to begin to reproach the group, that is, if it were claimed they were not consistent, since thematic consistency across a string of productions is hardly a major virtue, but rather in light of the diversity of the theater’s projects over the years, going from reworked classics (such as Antigone) to collectively played, audience-participatory spectacles (Mysteries) to rigidly choreographed, dance-like pieces (The Brig), to highly literate, scripted performances (the current production, The Connection). I bring this up because I believe the triumphal new staging of the Gelber play reveals that there is a deep continuity woven through their drama.

But before getting to that, let me note the knotty complexity of this current work, which, understandably, confused the Times reviewer Charles Isherwood. He does note the contradiction that appears early on in the drama when the “writer,” Jaybird, comes on stage to say, “I am interested in improvised theater,” claiming the addicts who are sitting around the set are simply riffing as they would in everyday life, but then he later begins yelling at these same actors, telling them, “You are murdering the play … you’re [supposed] to give the whole plot in the first act.” Doesn’t’ seem very improvisatory if what they say is dictated by the author.

While Isherwood grasps this, he then comments, “We are not in the realm of strict naturalism, clearly. The actors … mostly perform in a realistic style, but they break into languid or fervent confessional monologues.” But, for him to say these monologues break with realism is to overlook the fact that (supposedly) these are addicts who are being paid to appear before an audience. They are expected to give viewers their money’s worth, which realistically entails they bare their souls. They wouldn’t do this if they weren’t appearing in a play, perhaps, but the premise is that they are.

This is no side issue for the very crux of the play is to contrast two ways of being artistically creative, either through playwrighting/filmmaking or musicianship. As I see it, the acute contradictions in Jaybird’s conceptualization of this project do not arise from his own naiveté and immaturity (which are considerable), but because of the hollow heart of American drama (then and now) that has proven incapable of capturing reality in any fundamental depth.

(Of course, this position is taken in a play, but I would imagine Gelber would exclude experimental theater from his critique.)

Simply look at the presumption of the producer and writer. The producer, played with harried grace by Tom Walker the night I attended, tells us, “Jaybird has spent some months living among drug addicts.” With this background, he is now apparently knowledgeable enough to cut us a slice of life. Yet, a little bit later, Jaybird (in a fine rendering by Eric Olson), explains to us, “Remember: for one night this [drug addict] scene swings. But as life it’s a damn bore.”

Okay, but that means we are not getting a real depiction of the addict lifestyle, which would be tedious, but a neophyte’s manipulated version. Moreover, this manipulation extends rather far. Later, Jaybird explains to the viewers, “Some of you will leave the theater with the notion that jazz and narcotics are inexorably connected. That is your connection, not –” Okay, Jaybird, but every player you picked for the combo that plays in the performance is a known user. Wouldn’t it seem this selection stacked the deck so the audience would be led to this “connection”?

This is not to say that a documentary depiction that really depicted a junkie hangout would make good theater, but rather to note that Jaybird comes to the scene with a built-in agenda.

And believe me, Gelber’s criticism goes considerably deeper into its indictment of American drama. Kenneth Tynan, in his introduction to the original Grove Press edition of this play, compares The Connection to Gorky’s Lower Depths. I wonder if it would have been more apropos if he had mentioned the American drama, the one the author said he had modeled on the Russian play, namely, The Iceman Cometh.

Now, there’s a curious addict Ernie. One of the other characters says about him, “He hasn’t played that rotten horn for five years now. And him coming on like he was the great artist or something.” It’s curious because such a labeling (and the suggestion that Ernie gets high to hide from himself the fact that he is no longer a musician), is not applied to any of the other drug fiends, whose reasons for their addiction is never explained.

In Iceman – and remember that O’Neill did not spend “some months” observing the denizens of a low-class haunt, but was himself a sponging bum in a Manhattan gin mill in a waterfront tavern off the Hudson River – every single character, all drunks, is consumed with such illusions, all thinking he or she will soon get back on track. O’Neill terms it “puffing on the [opium] pipe of the past,” while, perhaps coincidentally, Ernie, the only Iceman-like personage on view, is always blowing on his mouthpiece, as if in homage to that play. But the very fact that only one character is given this background, which, on top of that, is not necessarily believable, given the untrustworthy character who makes the comment about Ernie, to me suggests that O’Neill’s way of depicting the down-and-out has been found wanting. There’s the hint that O’Neill, like Jaybird, has hoisted his own agenda on the riff raff, making them resemble the illusion-haunted people in his own family, as depicted in Long Day’s Journey.

And there’s another thing. Consider The Connection’s central plot pivot. The addicts are waiting for the man, Cowboy, to bring their drugs. In Iceman, everyone is waiting for fast-talking Hickey, who has always delivered (on his yearly visits) a big helping of hope, but who, this time, is undercut and exposed as a fraud by one malcontent. Here, O’Neill follows Gorky to a degree, in whose play a religious visionary, Luka, delivers the same hope, but when he leaves everyone falls back into despair. In the Gelber play, it seems facsimiles of both of these characters show up: the visionary (Sister Salvation) and the hope deliverer (Cowboy) waltzing through the door together. And this doubling is not the only way the play departs from the line of the earlier works. There is never any faith placed in the religious zealot, who is not heeded, while the hope feeder does bring the expected relief, the dose, and, in a significant turn, is shown not to be an intruder from outside but a user himself.

It’s hard not to think that Gelber made these changes as an implicit criticism of the earlier writers. It would seem Gelber is hinting that in the improvisatory sections of the play, despite the strictures of Jaybird, something real about the addicts life has been captured that the moralism of O’Neill and Gorky, who want to emphasize the wretchedness of the lumpen proletarian, misses. What the first two authors overlook is that the addictive substance (alcohol in the earlier plays) does offer a substantial release. In other words, as a self medication, even if the end result is self destruction, heroin is real.

This is shown, in many places through subtle staging, for example, by having the characters in the Second Act, after they’ve fixed, act and talk more coherently. Sam, played by Eno Edet, in a magisterial performance, complete with a tic of clearing his nose that adds a spooky rhythm to his speech, tells a fascinating story, that more than fulfills the promise of the previous act, where he said, without proving it, “I have quite a rep … repi … quite a lot of stories that would tickle the hairs of your ass. But I’m kinda sick right now.” And the musicians, now high, though they don’t play better, show both a greater interplay (particularly in an intimate interchange of Rene Mclean’s noble sax and Alan J. Palmer’s snappy piano) and a greater willingness to let players follow their muse. This last is shown, when Andy McCloud is playing a pounding bass solo and the pianist and sax player, at different moments, seem about to jump in, but then back off, allowing McCloud to continue the flow.

These players’ aborted moves to enter the music are not broadcast in an obvious way. They don’t strike a few notes and then stop, but suggest their intentions only by shifts in posture. And this articulate but under-stressed acting is evident in all aspects of the performance. Most significantly, as one addict steps forward to “testify” while all around him other addicts are nodding out, it might seem these stoned characters would have little to do. But, occasionally glancing around, I noted that each character, without distracting from the main feature, was doing something (or not doing something) in a way that added to his portrayal. For example, when Solly (Anthony Sisco), one of the greatest jazz aficionados in the flat, who runs over and crouches beside the piano every time the quartet plays a number, gets his shot, he becomes so entranced with fixing his shoelaces, that he forgets to listen to the music.

Of course, Malina, playing Sister Salvation, is past master of such artistry, which is taken to heights in her illumination of this role. As each person speaks, she registers on her face a tortured mix of fear, fascination and, when she seems to spy a soul ripe for saving, excitement. She accompanies whoever is talking with a facial and bodily awareness as steady as that of the combo’s fine drummer (Emanual Harrold) backing the instruments.

But, I’ve said Gelber is using the play to compare two forms of creativity, the second being music. To get to this art’s presence, let me go to the play’s high point. It’s one of the greatest moments I’ve ever seen in the theater, and it’s not even a moment but a transition. In the Second Act, as has happened throughout the night, a jazzl interlude suspends the action. However, in each previous case, the playing has taken off at a juncture or break in the action, perhaps after a minor denouncement. This time, just as an addict finishes speaking, the music spreads out, as if it were a response to what he has said. I don’t know if I can convey this, but it’s as if the characters’ hopes, blues, rivalries and contretemps are being replaced by a mold of sound. And, further, it’s as if we now see that, yes, there is a connection between jazz and the addicts’ world. The link is that this music – at least when played with the virtuosity of Maclean’s group – can capture the effervescent skein of feelings and dynamics in this world, ones that, as we saw, in the face of which (establishment) film and theater are bankrupt. The whole play turns on providing this contrast between jazz, that can make the scene, and film/writing that can’t.

It may not seem so, but now we’re back at the beginning. For what I can now say is that, thought with radically different politics, the Living Theatre has been guided as if by a kind of organic Piscator.

How do I mean this? Anarchism has had an eye to unmask a much greater range of authoritarianism’s guises than has been possible in a Marxism (like Piscator’s) that is simply focused on the class struggle. Yet both theaters are concerned with this unmasking. The Living Theater looks at different forms of oppression, whether those channeled by the state (Antigone), the military (The Brig), the media (Anarchia), the economy (Capitalism Changes), patriarchy or controlling forms of art (The Connection). And each examination has included a tremor of hope. So, in The Connection, over and above the oppressions of poverty and conformity, which seem to draw the men into addiction – there are no women addicts in the play – and beyond the compromised and know-it-all practices of writing and filmmaking, which would depict a world these arts have already prejudged and pre-condemned, there is the tremor provided by jazz. This music can fight past the limitations of the milieu and crystallize its feelings in lively, lovely forms.

Even when it seems so, as it might in The Connection, the Living Theatre’s message is not rendered in personal terms, and this another reason why its dramatic thrust links it back to Piscator. It’s true that characters are rendered with unsurpassed insight. Think of the suavity of Cowboy (Jeff Nash), which suddenly plummets when he removes his shades and thinks of his past. Recall also the harbored, maternal surliness of Leach (John Kohan) or the coiled vigilance of Ernie (Brad Burgess). These are all well etched, unforgettable people, and yet the final impression one comes away with is the different modes of groups: the addicts as ground, the filmmakers/writer, who are the authority figures (yelling at and ordering the addicts around, since they are paying them), and the musicians, also hired hands, but ones who, at times, can anarchistically break bounds by suddenly wailing in the night.

That is the vision.

Review of: Ma Jian, Beijing Coma, trans. Flora Drew (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

In Remembrance of Things Past, as we've all read, the author is able to recall events from the distant past with tremendous sensory detail after tasting a madeleine cake. In Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, a similarly monumental recall is instituted, not by an experience, but by a unique situation. Struck down by a bullet to the head, the protagonist lies comatose in bed, but, while unable to move, communicate or see, he can still think clearly. Being taken care of by his isolated mother, a retired singer, he has little to occupy his mind but memories, particularly of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in which he was one of the leaders, and at which, when the military cracked down, he was shot.

Review of Eureka, a play at the Living Theater, written by Hanon Reznikov and Judith Malina

Jim Feast Review of Eureka, a play at the Living Theater, written by Hanon Reznikov and Judith Malina

Whatever the value in the Living Theater’s recent production, Eureka, of its literary allusions to Poe’s Romantic cosmology (from which the work draws its initial inspiration), its humanization of chemistry’s table of elements, its way of catching up the audience, at a breakneck pace, into the unfolding of the event, I think the most remarkable and significant factor in the evening is the position of “the actors,” using the term to refer to thespians of both genders.

This significance may seem to run against the avowed aim of the play, which by gradually inducting the viewers into the creative process, allows them to help make the play till, near the end, they are told explicitly, their participation is equivalent to their  (usually unknown to themselves) role in energizing, informing and directing the universe, and so they are no different from the actors.

However, if the play went no further than this, it would be little more than a snazzy, populist version of an encounter group or communal therapy session, both of which, after all, preach empowerment and tell their participants to “realize you create your own reality” and, with that knowledge, “now take charge of yourself.” The only difference would be that in Eureka, you substitute “nebula” for “yourself.”

But what separates, separates with a chasm, Eureka from these more therapeutic programs is the role of the actor. Let me say it explicitly. While encounter group members can be divided between facilitators (that direct the sessions) and those participants looking for healing, the attendees of Eureka are divided between audience members and actors whose role (for viewer/participants) is radically indeterminate. (At one moment, they are reciting rococo speeches, at the next hanging like acrobats from the ceiling.) Indeed, it is this ambiguity that, for the length of the play, causes a disturbance in the basal texture of human relations, forcing the alert viewer/participant to fall to a level of social questioning more profound than any likely to be provoked by worries about how one has had a hand in the creation of the universe.   

My discussion has been frightfully abstract so far, so let me move quickly into the tissue of the play for illustration. When one enters the performance area, which is a bare space, surrounded by monkey bars, with screens at two ends projecting jittery, colorful patterns, the actors are aloft in frozen postures. Then, one by one, they cast off their stances and bound to the floor where each engages in a different, graceful repetitive action, like bending over and standing up. Meanwhile, the two identifiable figures in the play, both Romantic poets and scientists, are involved in characteristic acts. Poe sits at a writing desk, and naturalist von Humboldt walks around taking notes and testing the soil.  The obvious deduction would be that these higher pursuits, collecting geological samples or thinking (perhaps about writing a poem), are simply more complex forms of repetitive motions.

In any case, the actor engaged in all these actions are oblivious to the audience members, von Humboldt, for instance, stepping through them as if they didn’t exist. It might be said that the same sort of thing takes place in traditional theater. Nora in A Doll’s House pays no mind to spectators watching her. However, here things are different. It’s as if, for example, The Wild Duck were being acted in the stalls, the characters talking over the head of seated viewers. This is slightly disorienting.

But, then, there’s another change. The actors press a few of the audience-participants to huddle together, as if they were the first “particle” that Poe saw as at the origin of “the universe of stars.” Then the participants move apart, stepping on that first ignition pedal that signaled the big bang’s inauguration.

Now this is crucial.  (And here I am talking about all the players except Poe and von Humboldt.) The way the versatile actors move the audience-participants into the inner circle where they will clump together is not by verbally instructing them, but by gently and steadily taking a person by the hand or shoulder, moving with her or him to the heap and gesturally indicating what to do. There may be whispered words of direction, but these are kept to the minimum. The whole edifice of this clump and then the other actions that audience-participants are coaxed to engage in throughout the evening are guided largely non-verbally through artful gestures. Moreover, at a key moment, when select audience members are each asked to present her or his view of a chemical element, such as lead or oxygen, they do so not with words but with pantomime. It’s as if the actors were modeling a different method of conducting social relations, one more rooted in the body than the throat.   

But there’s a second,  equally far-reaching change in how they conduct themselves. It is impossible to predict what they will do next: leap on the monkey bars, cluster, talk to Poe or guide audience-participants through some action.  And, I believe, it’s hard to guess what they will do because they are not guided by the inner voice of a character, of a Nora or a Gregers Werle, but by an overriding system of energies that dictates varied responses as the universe mutates and grows.

Let’s step back a moment. An emphasis on physicality has been present in all the Living Theater’s recent productions. But this stress has usually been on an imposed set of actions. Most obviously, in The Brig, the rigorous, prescribed set of marching steps and salutes carried out by the detainees in the Marine prison were a form of discipline the inmates had to follow or suffer harsh punishment.  In Mysteries, while there are times when the community worships and celebrates autonomously, I think that play’s most powerful moments come at the end when the group suffers a plague and their death throes are captured in a set of rhythmic forms, which, one can say, are imposed by Nature.

In sharp contrast, following Poe’s plan, which sees matter, driven by an internal impulse, reforming and complexifying into more and more beautiful, myriad and (potentially) benevolent  forms, in Eureka, all the spontaneously generated new physical actions and contortions are born from the community.

The play is structured so that audience-participants take on larger and larger roles in the weaving together of the strands so that, in the end, they stand alone, away from the actors, ready to exfoliate on their own. That is the theme, as I’ve noted. But the chasm, between this Living Theater work and other works that feature audience participation, comes in the way the actors as a collective  model how the audience-participants as a collective can fill in their place in a universe run more gesturally and intuitively than the one outside 19 Clinton Street.   And as this happen, each audience member must run through a novel set of existential choices as she or he orients to living in concert with a set of beings (seemingly) from a transfigured plane.

Review of Yoko Ono's "Touch Me" by Jim Feast

Yoko Ono's "Touch Me" at Galerie LeLong, April 1 to May 24, 2008 On first entering the Yoko Ono show, "Touch Me," at the Galerie LeLong, one is immediately struck by the presence of a young gentleman sitting on a chair at the edge of an enclosed small room. In that room is a small objet d'art, a high-heeled shoe, with bleedings of bubbly red paint on its edge and interior. It is Ono's "Family Album Exhibit M, High Heeled Shoe." It's worth thousands of dollars and, you would think, should be enclosed in a thick, bulletproof glass case. But it isn't. Instead, a young man is paid to sit there, bored out of his mind, and stare at the objet in case anyone might try to handle or, perhaps, steal the shoe. So, the first question to ask about the show - one which cuts to the heart of what Ono's art is about - is why does the gallery prefer to use a low-paid drudge rather than a lockbox to guard her art? A superficial examination might conclude this is done merely for cost effectiveness. The super-exploited gallery employees obviously earn little money and saves the cost of fitting an expensive box. Still, I think the choice is more ideological. By leaving the shoe outside the box, as it were, the arrangement creates an atmosphere of casualness, informality and freedom, which, as long as one studiously ignores the context, gives the work an aura of being unfettered. Let's go further and note that this attempt to establish such a gallery tone falls in with the (sad) attempt to recreate the feelings Ono's work evoked in her youth when she was a vital member of the Fluxus Group. This re-creation is done most diligently by playing contrasting videotapes of her Cut Piece, a performance in which she allows random audience members come forward and clip off pieces of her dress. It was done as part of a Fluxus event in 1965 at Carnegie Recital Hall. Then, it was redone as a nostalgic tribute in 2003. The two performances are as different as night and day or, more appropriately, life and death. Note these distinctive attributes of the Fluxus version.

1. It involves a small group of participants doing the shearing, as evidenced by the fact that the same people come on stage repeatedly, in other words, it is a community.

2. The participants are dressed in shabby elegance, wearing cast-off, shiny suits or out-of-fashion dresses, suggesting they are down-at-heels bohemians.

3. Each cut is done as a premeditated artistic act, some being more expressive or inventive than others, as evidenced by how a well-placed snip is applauded by the audience.

4. The camera woman or man is given unrestricted freedom, so that at times that person is training the lens on the back of Ono's head, at others, zooming in on a near-invisible audience.

All in all, one gathers that the interaction combines solemnity and a sense of shared adventure. The re-created 2003 version lacks all this and is, indeed, the diametrical and perverse opposite:

1. There is no sense of community among the cutters, who are all different.

2. They are all dressed well, though some casually, indicating they are socialites or well-off functionaries.

3. There is no finesse in the cutting, which seems almost perfunctory, the performance of a ritual that no longer has any meaning. (We'll come back to this.) No audience response is heard.

4. The camera work is rigidly conventional, that of a hired hand, not a fellow participant.

In sum, as the participants move through the sequence like automatons, there is no applause, no spontaneity, no real life. In fact, it is as if the participants were as dispirited and uninterested in what they are doing as the young man guarding the high heels. And this, I think, is what Ono is saying by presenting these two tapes. For both the 2003 re-creation tape and the pervasive unhappiness that pervades the gallery (perhaps a read-off of the sensibility of the exploited workers employed in them) are clear presentations to show that the New York City art world in our neoliberal, neoconservative era - whatever the skill or even genius of the artists that show in it - is largely inhabited by tragic zombies who fastidiously re-create works of a more lively era, only acting in this way so they can be dead a little longer.

"Maudie and Jane" Theater Review by Jim Feast

Review of Maudie and Jane at the Living Theater

Aside from jingoistic battle hymns, fairy tale romances and major league sports, one of the central props of the mass media’s impoverished offerings is a poisoned humanism. One can easily picture what the extraordinary play at the Living Theater, Maudie and Jane, would have been if the writer, director and actors had wanted to create a work in this category. (I am noting this only so as to be able to subsequently show how valiantly Maudie and Jane repudiates the reigning pseudo-humanism.)

If the work had been written this way, the magazine executive Jane would have been (eventually) elevated by stumbling into the reclusive, miserable old lady Maudie in the pharmacy. She would have begun to sympathize with the elderly woman, then realized that she (Jane) had repressed her own life-affirming traits, which now begin to flower in the embrace of this downtrodden figure. Jane is reborn, in such a version, and goes back to reform her corporation.

This theme, that of a hardnosed, repressed insider who is taught to “smell the daisies’ by an eccentric outsider has been the subject of innumerable plays and films, from Herb Gardiner’s A Thousand Clowns (the masterpiece of the genre) on to The Dead Poets’ Society to Irma la Douce and The Madwoman of Chaillot.

And it is always a lie. For one, it avoids the reality of social problems by, using the imaginary case we are considering, representing all indigents in one person whose mission is not to further her own life projects so much as to aid a repressed bureaucrat or corporate underling to improve her own existence. And, even aside from this and other alibis contained in such works, the topic has now been so worked to death that a current production can only evoke a response from the audience through Pavlovian means.

But now let’s talk about how the Living Theater handles the subject. And, to start, we can rewrite one of Althusser’s most celebrated lines, substituting for the word “Marxism” in this way: Anarchism is not a humanism.”

Maudie and Jane, which superficially follows the oft-rehearsed plot line of regeneration through slumming, is actually deadset against it. The play’s premise is rather that, if such a friendship between high and low were to arise, it would not solve Jane’s work problems, would not make her a better person outside the singular connection to Maudie, and would not diminish the crushing injustice of society.

The second point is the most important. Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns or Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society, each playing the eccentric, do not alter their personalities. They are present only as catalysts to inspire the uptight character. In Maudie and Jane, by contrast, the drama is divided between the characters; each of whom is closed off by different doors: Jane by the siege mentality of the corporate office where protecting one’s turf is key; Maudie in reaction to having been betrayed by her husband and mishandled by social agencies. The play’s question is: Can they establish trust, which entails each becoming less defensive and dropping some treasured prejudices.

Moreover – and here’s the greatest rebuke to Hollywood humanism that can be imagined – because the two are from different worlds and speak incompatible languages, they cannot grow close by means of grasping each other’s verbal meanings. They have to approach through the physical, via action.

No matter how sick Maudie is, having a coughing fit or pissing her bed, she still makes Jane tea. And Jane shows her solidarity by her own actions: washing Maudie’s floor, changing the kitty litter, even bathing the older woman in a scene of tremendous visceral force.

And, note, voice-over narration is used to astutely suggest, in line with this theme, the disvalue of words as methods of building contact. Each time Maudie or Jane grow physically closer, one hears a voiceover disavowing the sympathy. Jane is saying, for instance, something like, “What am I doing with this woman? This is the last time I’ll ever spend time with her. I hate her.” Meanwhile, their ties deepen.

As to the actresses, with Judith Malina as Maudie and Monica Hunken as Jane, since it is the physical that primarily draws them closer, each must convey the pair’s (always wary) intimacy through gestures, mincing steps, sounds, head wags. The moves have been so perfectly chosen and played, with such expressive grace, that I (who see a lot of theater) can’t help but say the two women display the consummate displays of acting we are likely to see this generation.

But, to return to the argument, the increasing devotion of the women to each other does not improve Jane’s work life (as it would in a humanist version). Instead of reinvigorating her for the corporate realm, she quits her job.

And it does not improve class relations in Britain. In another flourish that makes against besotted humanism, when Jane finally gets Maudie to leave her flat and visit the park, after observing the birds (as they would in the Hollywood version), the women note the wrecking ball demolishing a building and leading the charge to level Maudie’s neighborhood.

All in all, the work moves at a remarkable level of intensity and headiness, reaching, at points, as at the bathing scene, to the power of a fully realized sacred ritual. By violently breaking with the saccharine conventions of a humanist treatment, the play is able to register new, emergent levels of feeling

But why do I call it (in citing Althusser) and now label it a supreme anarchist work of art? Because it presents one guiding (near blinding) truth of the political movement. That the moment one removes – dares to remove – the authority lines that govern all human relations in capitalism, for instance, the lines that declare the rich Jane can have no concourse with the indigent Maudie, then two people can, unprecedentedly, meet face to face and give birth to gut-wretching hope.

Review of The Man Who Appear**ed by Jim Feast

Review of The Man Who Appear**ed(playing at the Theater for the New City, Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 28 to March 9, 2008)

Putting pretentious claims aside, I don’t think there has ever been a literary Cubist. Gertrude Stein is the writer most often denominated one, but this was more because she was in the same milieu, indeed, helped support the milieu in Paris, shared by Picasso, Braque and others in the school, than because she adopted a similar stance in prose. I bring this up because a new play, The Man Who Appear**ed, by Gary Brackett, Martin Reckhaus and Jessica Slote, does recapture the essence of that art movement: its energetic shuffling around of a pulverized reality. To follow the interpretation of art critic John Berger, the Cubists’ re-viewing of café tables, people and guitars had nothing to do with seeing their surroundings as many-sided and fluidly assembled (although this is the reading the art is normally given). For Berger, the crucial fact is that this art movement arose in a period (1908-1911) when a heavy tide of socialist and anarchist protests, uprisings and propaganda flowed through society, casting doubt on the longevity of the reigning capitalism. Ergo, Cubist painting showed a scene that was unstable because of the future. The painters thought it was possible business civilization was on the verge of disintegration, and that it would be replaced by council communism or cooperative anarchism. Nothing in the present, they thought, was anything but an outline, since its anchor points were about to give way. Brackett/Reckhaus/Slote have applied a parallel Cubist view to a straightforward short story by Brazilian writer Clarisse Lispector (possibly because they share with the Cubists a sense of the fragility of contemporary social arrangements). They have applied it with this difference: Where the painters presented an individual object as a set made up of itself seen from different perspectives and in varied relations to other objects, all layered and collaged together, The Man achieves a similar effect by taking a single event -- the chance meeting of old friends (one of whom, the woman, has become a successful writer, and the other, the man, a derelict) -- and makes this the plot of a film being made. From this vantage, individual moments between the characters can be done more than once (to get them right), put in a rearranged sequence (since films are generally shot out of chronological order) and discussed by the actors (masks down) as they consider different ways of portrayal. Such a basis for the unfolding tale makes for a complex, witty interplay of reality and illusion. In the role of a friend (Slote) tells the woman (Sheila Dabney) she should have acted differently in her encounter with the man (John Kohan). Later Slote (out of role) advises her fellow actor, Kohan, on a different way he might play his role in relation to Dabney. Thus, Slote’s two parts (playing an actress and that actress in part) humorously intertwine. But to be entranced by these interlocking levels would be to miss the deeper-lying, more painful truths at the heart of the play. If in Cubism the whole object world is shattered to show its possibly temporary existence, these writers suggest that human connections in our time are so hollow and shallow that they can only contain passion and validity if they are re-imagined (taken apart analytically, that is, shattered) and re-lived. The setup leading to this conclusion occurs in the first, breathtaking scene. The audience is not facing a stage but a wall in which there are two small windows, one larger one, a door and a screen for projections. Dabney comes through the audience, goes in the door, and takes a chair, back to us, inside the bigger window. She is on a riser. Below her we see an empty space and, further upstage, a row of chairs. Although this is not the case, at this juncture, it seems as if we are about to view a drama over her shoulder. So, the feeling, right off the bat, is spooky, uncanny, suggesting the spectators will experience the whole play at second remove. To repeat, then, the play’s point, that nowadays rich emotional ties can only be created through very thick mediations, is established here. It’s an idea that can be taken either negatively (underlining the insufficiency of our humanity) or positively (that this way forward can lead to a new level of experience). In any case, three scenes of magnificent power graphically show what so far might seem a rather abstract concept.

  1. Dabney and Kohan sit closely together (in character) as she tries to convince him to regenerate himself. He looks listless and diffident while her face is filled with regret, compassion and concern. Here’s the surprise. Kohan faces the audience through the window. Dabney is totally turned away, facing the film’s camerawoman Asoka Esoruosa. Dabney’s face is seen projected on the wall screen, etched with feeling but flattened, mediated.
  2. Slote with a seen-it-all, deadpan voice tells Kohan how she thinks he should play a part of the dialogue. Suddenly, she goes into character, his character, and her voice and face ignite with heart-wrenching unhappiness. Reenactment complete, she goes back to Buster Keaton.
  3. In a tour de force à deux, Dabney and Kohan act out the scene where the derelict breaks down under the touch of his ex-friend’s solace. They do the scene with riveting power. It takes one’s breath away.

The director is not satisfied. Play it again. Astoundingly, with a reinterpretation of gestures, the second run-through is even more electrifying. Again, not satisfied. Act it again. The third, and last, version staples you to your seat with the raw honesty of the emotion. Yet, unsettling enough, this sequence hints that people only reach the emotional truth of their situations through repetition (something not very viable in daily life) and, moreover, more startlingly, a person seems more likely to sound her or his own depths in playing a (contrived) role not in everyday interactions. I should say, by the way, about this pitiless director, masterly acted by Reckhaus, that he is the only person on stage who seems carried away and convincing in everything he says – that is, he never adopts the deadpan stance. But, here’s the rub. His words are almost never heard. He is talking under others or whispering instructions, so his feelings only appear in his gestures and on his expressive face. Perhaps, I’ve already said in so many words that the set is off-putting but stunning; the lighting and screen insets well done, and the acting on-key, nuanced and strong. After all, only acting of such trenchancy could balance the intellectual complexity of this rethinking of the Cubist figuration.

Segments and Connections

In sum, we can say that the show as a whole is successful on two planes: as the presentation of three distinctive, coherent vistas; and as providing some idea of how the newly emergent individual of our times may look. This individual, folding in all the qualities we have detected, will be able to maintain more than one perspective, but only because his/her sensibility is engaged in a collective action to alter the negativity of many social practices and institutions (this allowing a view that both sees the present in its depth and its potential alternative), doing so, not in order to be liberated from history, but (as Walter Benjamin would have it) to tease out something from its fund of extinguished hopes

Good Housekeeping

There is a dominant notion alive in the art world today that in our over-educated visual artists inevitably simply repeat (with minor changes) work that has already been done. Whatever credibility this idea may have as a blanket assertion, it certainly misses the mark in many individual cases, such as that of the artists, Emily Bicht and Fay Ku, whose work appeared in the recent “Good Housekeeping" show at Tribes Gallery. Both of them consciously echo themes from earlier art but add a new .level of consciousness to their creations, necessarily so, since part of their practice is to reflect on how this earlier work was received, which, naturally, would have been impossible for its creators.

Late Observations on "The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984"

I want to look back for a moment at the "Downtown Show" that took place earlier this year and which focused on the New York hipster art scene from 1974 to 1984. The accompanying material and the organization of the show made a big point of the fact that the artists of the time played fast and loose with the boundaries between the styles of high and popular art. However, something of much greater importance was another type of violation of this border to which the show alluded. .

Communique Art Show

It is fashionable in art criticism to take the most bland, inoffensive work and, by means of tortured reasoning, prove that it is politically charged and provocative. Take, for example, premier critic Robert Morgan's description of Kim MacConnel's work. To the uninformed viewer, his paintings resemble beautifully decorated, rhythmic wallpaper. According to Morgan, in his The End of the Art World, as MacConnel's "approach to patterned ornamentation developed into the seventies, it became more ideological, specifically in its allusion to arts and crafts. The history of the Arts and Crafts movement in England... was a history of the defiance of standardization."

Think about what this interpretation presupposes. 1) That the viewer, seeing MacConnel's work, which has no allusions to the British movement in it, will, nonetheless, immediately relate these designs to that different time and place. And even if that connection were invariably made, which seems hardly plausible, then, 2) the mere allusion to a previous, outdated political movement makes the current work itself political.

This is not meant as a jibe against Morgan, a fine critic in many ways, but as a representative example of how mainstream critics often desperately try to promote decorative fancies as cutting political statements. It may well be that this is done because any kind of really politically engaged work is barred from the galleries and museums that are these critics' beat.

Things are different, of course, in the more iconoclastic, fringe galleries, such as that of Gathering of the Tribes, where the show Communiqué exhibits art that take no spelunker to finds its political depths.

This is not to say that what is on display is work of the agit-prop variety in which a particular person or policy is lambasted. Such art tends to quickly pale as its specific allusions are forgotten. Rather, this art is political in viewing the world as a fraught public concern in which the answer to our prayers and problems will arise through a firm collective address to social issues. In other terms, from this perspective the artist's job is simply to focalize the most demanding current issues in a hard-hitting way, whether with wry irony (as in the work of David Sandlin and Tim Slowinski), puckish cartooning (as in the work of Shalom), or with a more allusive but still demonstrative style (as seen in a photo work by Toyo).

To give you a whirlwind tour of what I mean, we'll begin with Sandlin. In his untitled triptych, there is a sad historical succession, moving from a grotesque Garden of Eden where a baby looks on as two lions copulate in the lap of a lumpy elephant to a last picture where the baby and his fellows, maintaining the same lighthearted innocence, stand at the edge of a swampy battlefield, which has a burning city on the horizon and a squadron of marching babes in arms in the near distance. Given the centrality of infants in these depictions, the suggestive moral would seem to be that children will gleefully adapt to whatever world we provide and will, with equal fervor, observe animals' lovemaking, make mudpies or trash foreign countries.

Equally grotesque, if more allegorically clear, is Slowinksi's "Uncle Frank's War Dance." Here an overweight, sweaty and salivating Uncle Frank, decked out in red, white, and blue togs and holding a small missile as if it were an all-day sucker, shuffles woefully along to a patriotic band containing such mismatched minstrels as an American Indian, a cat, and Abe Lincoln on zither. If there is some caricature of our current leaders' tendencies to beat war drums on the slightest pretext, the oil also contains another edge in how it exposes the pitiable side of this spectacle. While nasty, Uncle Frank is also pathetic, a middle-aged, out-of-shape slimeball trying to replicate a macho posture appropriate to a young hunk.