in context

If there’s one thing I, Culturebot, have learned from my misadventures in performance, both onstage and off, it’s: location, location, location! Or, more exactly, context, context, context!

As artists we’re always looking for the next best opportunity, the next chance to take what we’re doing to the next level of accomplishment. And sometimes something comes along that seems great – like a gig at a new “happening” club/theater/venue or an opportunity to make some money on TV, etc. – but really isn’t. Afterwards maybe you realize that the club wasn’t as “happening” as it was touted, or they hadn’t worked out the kinks in the system and you couldn’t control the environment. Maybe you got the TV gig but realized that you were being used, not for your art, but to add “authentic downtown color” to a lame show. Maybe the theater was in the wrong part of town with the wrong audience or maybe (and this is the hardest one to admit) maybe you just weren’t ready for that next step.In the name of trying to move forward you can relinquish control of your context, only to realize that you’ve lost control of the art as well. There are a million reasons why a show can work, or not work, depending on the environment.

I saw three shows this weekend that each confront that situation in different ways: George & Martha at Collective:Unconscious, People Be Heard at Playwrights Horizons, and Kiki & Herb Will Die For You at Carnegie Hall.

I’ll start with People Be Heard at Playwrights Horizons, since that’s the one that really started me thinking about this issue. First off, I really liked it and they have $15 student rush tickets, so if you get a chance to see it, check it out. The thing is, it’s a pretty out-there show for such an uptown venue, and while it hasn’t “officially” opened yet, it’ll be interesting to see how that crowd reacts. The day I was there (a Saturday matinee) there was a marked difference in responses. The under-35 crowd (which I assume are students, or admin people at theaters, or friends of cast/crew) really liked it and reacted to the show animatedly. The over-35 crowd seemed a little mystified. For those of us who see work regularly downtown, it’s not so weird to have stylized acting that is obviously “acting”. It’s not so weird for us to have songs interpolated into the play without obvious build-up or heavily scripted musical-theater style “book” intros and segueways. Its not so weird for us to have space aliens and strippers and see a square dance turn into Sufi twirling. We’re pretty much used to all of that kind of stuff. Not to mention the full frontal female nudity and the historical lessons told by pole dancers. But there are still a lot of people out there who find this stuff confusing, not to mention frightening. IMHO, the out-there shows, even the ones that are only mildly risque like Ave. Q, tend to do better when they start downtown, build an audience, and move up. It’s tough to start uptown and win those people over. I applaud Playwrights Horizons for putting on the show and I guess we’ll see what happens when it officially opens.

Now, on Friday night I went to see Karen Finley’s George & Martha, which was also the official opening of Collective:Unconscious’s new space on 279 Church Street, in what used to be the Harmony Burlesque Theater until 1999 or so. I’ve seen Karen Finley a number of times and though I’ve seen performances where she’d had other performers onstage with her (last year’s Make Love, for example), this was the first time I’d ever seen her actually share the stage with anyone.

In this production, Neal “The Paris Hilton of Performance Art” Medlyn is George Bush to Karen’s Martha Stewart, and I give him credit for just having the courage to get up on stage with Karen. I give him extra credit for the fact that they were both completely naked but for body paint the entire show. Most men would not have the courage to step in there, and of those who have the courage only a few could survive, much less thrive and shine. But Neal dives right in and lasts the whole ten rounds (I don’t know much about boxing, but he makes it through the whole thing. Is that ten rounds?) He gives a bravura performance, made all the more impressive by his ability to counter and even match Karen Finley’s sheer ferocity.

The reason I say this is that I’ve always felt that Karen works from a very deep, archetypal place. She’s like a vessel for the unrestrained chthonic feminine, an oracular presence coming straight from the Collective Unconscious. So its fitting that she’s at a theater of that name. Its fitting that the performance is deep underneath the street level, in the basement, in the physical and psychological underworld. Its fitting that this used to be one of the seediest strip clubs in NYC, a place where all pretense is stripped away (sorry), where it all gets down to the most basic, primal urges of lust and repression.

As I’ve said repeatedly, Culturebot is not in the business of reviewing shows, so I’m not going to get into evaluating the show. I think it is an important show, I think that Karen’s style is not for everyone. Its like really experimental improvisational music. There is a script and then there are moments of improvisation and exploration, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. When they do work, it’s all the more powerful, because Karen and Neal really are playing off of each other, live, in the moment, without a net. As for the written parts, Karen has created a script with some incredibly eloquent passages. The two characters, as she has written them, create some moments of startling truth. The overt references to Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, the pop culture references, the exposure of the psychological underbelly between these two iconic figures – all these elements are juxtaposed and converge, pointing to something true, yet elusive and indefinable. And even though many of the jaded downtown folk can be very “been there/done that” about performance art, the fact of the matter is that work this visceral is not being created on a regular basis around NYC and even if you think you’ve seen it, you probably haven’t.

But back to the larger point of context. Karen Finley has always been uncompromising in terms of context. She’s always refused to perform out of context, to allow others to dictate the terms of her representation. In this case, at Collective Unconscious, she has exercised that control to its best effect. I can’t imagine this piece anywhere else, it’s practically site-specific. And that specificity is a defining characteristic of her work. Over the course of her career she has virtually defined the world of downtown performance art and created the discipline. By exercising complete control over her environment she has created a singular category of one. But we are left to wonder what it would be like if she tried to create a piece that would exist in an uptown or more mainstream context. Like Kiki & Herb.

I’m not sure when I first saw Kiki & Herb, but there was one performance that I remember as a defining moment. There was (and may still be) a queer leftist space in Brooklyn called DUMBA. Every year in June they had a Gay Shame event, a non-corporate, DIY, punk-rock alternative to Gay Pride. The loft was maybe 3000 sq. ft. in total and the performance area was the size of a large living room. Kiki & Herb were in one corner and maybe 150 baby fags and dykes were crammed in the room ass-to-bellybutton. As soon as Kiki launched into “Wu Tang Motherfucker” (or whatever that song is called) the room became a flailing frenzy of queer punk rock ecstasy. From one song to the next, one drunken tirade into another, from Courtney Love to Gil Scott Heron, Kiki & Herb thrashed and sang and sweat and spit on the crowd until we just couldn’t take it anymore. Raw and rasping we cried for more, even if it hurt. ‘Cause it hurt so good.

Slowly and steadily Kiki & Herb moved on up. A Christmas show at P.S. 122, a weekly engagement at the Flamingo East, sold-out multi-week Christmas runs at Westbeth, then the Off-Broadway run at Cherry Lane, the Bowery Ballroom and now a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall.

Of all the acts that I never expected to see take the mainstream by storm, it was Kiki & Herb. I know that on some level we all hoped they would. Part of what keeps the faithful coming back to see them again and again over the years is that they speak to a greater truth. We feel that underneath the dire cynicism and black humor, the death-obsession and portrayal of lives in decay, there is this undying flame of hope, an upraised fist of the downtrodden and defeated refusing to give in. And Kiki & Herb’s faithful audience hopes that the mainstream will see this, recognize this, and be forever changed. One imagines George Bush seeing Kiki’s struggle with alcohol and loss and feeling compassionate, recognizing his own weakness, repenting for being such a huge fucking asshole. (The same goes for George & Martha, but to a lesser extent). Yet I recall sitting in The Cherry Lane and getting the creeping sensation that much of the audience just didn’t get it. The mainstream gay people only laughed at the Cher references and the uptown theater people just looked confused. “Why does she sing so loud? Why is she screaming?” Still, the show was solid, though maybe not as viscerally or emotionally satisfying as when Kiki was still “ours.” The fact is that they preserved the core of the performance, the spirit and intent of the performance. This is how it looked from the outside: they didn’t compromise the work, they successfully brought something conceptually difficult to a mainstream audience and, while not all the audiences “got it”, many of them did. And quite a few of them probably had their minds opened to new possibilities.

And so we arrive at Carnegie Hall. Having just arrived home from the show, I can say that it was an unmitigated success. On a personal note, it was strange. I think I saw everyone I’ve ever met since I moved to NYC. I mean, everyone was there. Never has a venue as big as Carnegie Hall felt so much like home. Somehow Kiki managed to recontextualize Carnegie Hall. She was in fine vocal form, she owned the stage and the audience, and the evening reverberated with the performances of every tragic diva who’s graced the hall. Somehow it was nearly as intimate as that first time out at DUMBA, only we’re all older now, more sedate. Except Kiki, who sang and cried and shouted and railed against all that is wrong in the world. If this was, in fact, a farewell performance, it was one to be remembered. It’s strange to think that Kiki made sense in Carnegie Hall, but she did. Almost more sense than ever, which is pretty amazing. I think everyone was in agreement on that. We’ll miss her. And Herb.

Okay, since this is essentially a blog and not journalism, I don’t feel required to make this make more sense. Also it’s late. And I know other people will post more reactions to Kiki & Herb. so if you’ve got such a strong opinion, why don’t you say something? Have you seen any of these shows? Got an opinion? Post a comment!!!

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