Salley May: Straight Outta The Psych Ward!

salley mayIf you like your performance art rife with psychotropic drugs, LP records and lovely young ladies in scant lobster costumes, then you should have been at Chashama on January 20th and 21st, 2004 to see Dixon Place’s presentation of Five and Two (5mg Haldol + 2mg Ativan),the newest performance from Downtown Legend and High Priestess of the Church of the Avant-Garde, Salley May.

Working at P.S. 122 and being a man-about-downtown, Culturebot sees lots of performance pieces of all shapes, sizes and varieties in any number of disciplines and hybrids. The question often arises: “What is Performance Art?”

Let’s face it, when most people in the mainstream hear about “performance art” they think of Karen Finley. Or maybe they think of an art-gallery installation that smacks of elitism. For instance, I’m not proud of it, but a few weeks ago I was actually home on a Wednesday night and saw an episode of a really bad TV show in which a cultured gay man puts his daughter’s working class Irish father-in-law in an art gallery as an exhibit. It’s absurd, but it’s the perception: performance art is deliberately obscure, self-involved elitist art for the East Coast Culture Mafia.

Now, I know – as do most of my friends – that this is not the case. Well, not always. And watching Salley May’s Five and Two (5mg Haldol + 2mg Ativan) reaffirmed for me the power and purpose of performance art. In my opinion Performance Art is a medium of expression that uses the basic elements of performance while eschewing the traditional structure of theater (plot, dialogue, characters, settings, dramatic arc). Thus it is a live experience, it is often “environmental” and it is meant to convey not so much a story, but a state of being or a world-unto-itself.

What Salley May has done in Five and Two (5mg Haldol + 2mg Ativan) is take the words of her patients (she works as a psychiatric social worker) and weave them together into a disjointed liturgy of mental deterioriation. This sounds depressing at first, but anyone who has seen Salley May’s performances as host and curator of Avant-Garde-Arama knows that she brings great humor and vitality to everything she does.

As the show begins, Salley enters wearing a crown and a fancy dress. Two assistants hook aircraft cable (which is dangling from a pulley in the ceiling) to rings attached to the dress, and proceed to rip it off, revealing a hospital gown. Over the course of the show, subsequent layers are stripped away in similar fashion.

There are multiple surreal scenarios: a birthday cake being divided up and served to the audience, Salley giving away old LP records to the audience and having them play them on old turntables, balloons hanging from the ceiling bursting to unleash a shower of shoes, of keys, of balloons, of pills.

And in between each scenario Salley delivers a liturgy of psych ward one-liners:

“Ativan? Ativan is like Tic-Tacs. What the hell good does it do to give me Tic-Tacs?”
“No, these things are real. I really am the stop light man. I invented all the stop lights.”
“Everything would be fine with police would just stop calling me all the time.”

These one liners are stunning in their accidental profundity and incidental pathos. Mostly funny, they are also haunting, and Salley’s performance makes us sympathetic to the plight of these people. The power of the piece is that it’s not sappy feel-good crap like the movie Awakenings, nor is it instructive and moralistic like one would expect from a broadway play or a book like “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Five and Two (5mg Haldol + 2mg Ativan) draws us into the world of mental disorder in a subjective way. We are forced to submit to the surreal illogic, the happenstance and coincidence, the seemingly unrelated events that unfold, always tantalizingly close to making sense, yet never quite cohering. This piece would not work in the hands of someone without Salley May’s dark humor. But her sense of compassion and of the absurd, her ability to look into the abyss of mental deterioration and find the cosmic humor in the human predicament, make this a compelling and touching performance.

About 3/4 of the way through the piece, Salley’s two female assistants move through the audience handing out a long piece of clothesline. Once everyone is holding onto the clothesline, the assistants lead the audience out of the theater, down a stairwell, through a dark basement to a back room where a woman in Arctic Hospital Garb (Annie Lanzillotto) spins a gigantic monolith of perfectly clear ice. She is surrounded by glittering chunks of ice on the floor, hanging from ice picks or suspended from chains in the ceiling, like an ice butcher or frozen abattoir. She sets the dangling ice in motion and as it swings she uses the tools of her trade (displayed ominously in the back of the room) to score, hack, and maul the ice. She shaves off bits, cuts off large pieces, hands them to the audience. All the while the ice monolith is spinning in the eery light of the basement. After about 10 minutes or so of this ice carving demonstration, the audience is led back upstairs for the conclusion of the performance. I’m not sure of the explicit significance of the ice sequence, but it was certainly captivating, surreal and unusual.

In Five and Two (5mg Haldol + 2mg Ativan) Salley is joined by several collaborators to help create the piece. Jacqueline Zahora and Ry Russo-Young are the lovely ladies who wear lobster suits and nurse outfits and other exotic garb as they set up and change the various props and scenic elements of each scenario. The Alien Comic/Jack Bump, also makes several appearances, most notably as “Gomez”, who makes the mistake of calling one of Salley’s characters “Ma’am” – when she prefers to be a “Miss”. And of course Salley’s faithful pug Phantom Louise makes a cameo to a heavy metal soundtrack by Man O’ War, chasing a ball and tearing up a stage strewn with mashed cake.

Salley May uses what is available to her: found props, found people, found objects, found texts. She takes these things, rearranges them, and works with her collaborators to make a different world, an almost-real microcosm predicated on mental instability. And in my mind, this is really good performance art. Because it is made in and of the world, not from abstraction. It speaks to the primacy of experience – which is why one creates a performance, not a painting or a book. It creates an environment that allows us to feel mystified but engaged and ultimately transformed.

I don’t know if any further performances of the piece are scheduled, but if we find out more information, we’ll let you know.

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