Red Bastard’s Farewell Show at Dixon Place
I first saw The Red Bastard (Eric Davis) a long time ago at some crazy performance art loft party in Bushwick. I was completely dumbfounded by his ten minutes of confrontational clowning. Never before had I seen a clown who was so aggressive and, well, weird. Dressed in his tight red suit with the bulbous protrusions, his face stark white with red-rimmed eyes, he looked like Satan’s unleashed Id, simultaneously amusing and terrifying his captive audience. Over the years I’ve checked in on Red Bastard’s work from time to time but this farewell show at Dixon Place demonstrated that he’s reached a whole new level.
The show started “normally” enough (for the Red Bastard) – he started in on a surreal monologue intro that quickly turned into an audience participation. In his unique blend of taunting and amusing, he activated the audience by getting them to jump up and down and eventually daring them to run around and switch seats. He did his standard bits – “something has to happen every ten seconds” and having people pull money out of his ass – but about 3/4 of the way through the show it took a turn for the decidedly intensely weird and uncomfortable. He shifted to what can only be called “sincerity” – and played that by engaging with the audience in “genuine” fashion. Making heartfelt statements of thanks and affection to individual members of the audience and eventually singling out one person – a girl named Monica – to shower with intense, stalker-y affection. “You are my favorite person in this room” he said. He then completely undermined the “sincerity” by singling out another woman in the audience and doing a similar bit.
Red Bastard played the audience like a demonic maestro, unnervingly swerving between outlandish oversized Bouffon and intense sincerity, blurring the line between real and artifice, challenging us to “feel” while at the same time risking humiliation. Then the Red Bastard reminded us of the “contract” he’d made with us in the beginning of the show – he would entertain us and when the time came we would be truthful. Then he did a whole new bit about a “Dream Bag” where he solicited the audience to shout out their dreams. At this point he identified another member of the audience, had her take out her cell phone and challenged her to call her soul-killing dayjob and quit. The final 1/4 of the show was, dare I say, Shamanic in a psychotherapeutic way, as Red Bastard continually pushed the audience’s psychological buttons “How can you realize your dreams if you can’t articulate what they are?”, alternately bonding, guiding and mocking everyone and everything. His instructions to the audience kept getting more outlandish and challenging, creating a tangible tension in the room and a genuine sense of chaos and frightening possibility. For his penultimate bit he encouraged the audience to run around the room doing whatever crazy thing they wanted – the room broke into pandemonium.
Finally, Red Bastard came onto stage and, literally, stripped off his clothing until it was just Eric Davis, standing alone on the stage naked, exhorting us to give up the fear of the things that are holding us back, our fear of life, our fear of dreams and “go out in the theater of life” and engage at our fullest possibility.
Writing it now it sounds a little cheesy – but it didn’t feel that way in the moment. It felt like Red Bastard fulfilled the primal, almost religious, ritual function of theater – to bring people together, to enter into “sacred” (or at least non-normal) space and be transformed. He led us down this crazy, twisting, hilarious and terrifying path of self-discovery in a group setting that felt out of control and yet completely structure. It was truly visceral, harrowing and hilarious.
It was a great send-off for the Red Bastard and part of me feels like its good that he’s leaving. His outsize performance is probably bigger than downtown venues can plausibly contain. He’s ready for bigger stages and those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience his work in intimate settings can join the ranks of people who say, “Oh, I saw him way back when….” Still, it is hard to imagine what Cirque de Soleil will be able to do with Red Bastard’s unique brand of terrifying, hilarious, psychoanarchic interactive performance.