John Kelly’s The Escape Artist at PS122

Several years ago John Kelly was working on a new piece based on Caravaggio. Using Caravaggio’s life story as a starting place, Kelly created a piece about a contemporary artist who struggles with the same demons. As the final image of the new work, Kelly wanted to be hanging from a trapeze in an artful posture and he started rehearsing his acrobatic skills. One day in the studio, working on the trapeze, he was trying a rather advanced move and lost his grip, plunging to the ground and nearly breaking his neck. For 15 hours Kelly lay immobile in the emergency room, trapped in his body, in his mind, and adrift in his own thoughts.

In The Escape Artist, Kelly uses video, song and story to recreate his thought process during those 15 hours. The show begins with Kelly entering the stage and telling us the story of the trapeze accident – he then climbs onto a “bed” and spends the bulk of the rest of the performance laying down, singing and narrating, as video projections tell a visual story of his interior experience. The visuals represent the images that flood his mind–the sinners and saints, the prostitutes and gods–that populate Caravaggio’s paintings.

The journey through Kelly’s thoughts on life, love and artistry is told through spoken text and 10 songs by Kelly with Carol Lipnik as well as two “covers” – he performs to pre-recorded music accompaniment until the final song when he arises from the bed and accompanies himself on electric guitar.

I found the show to be mesmerizing. It is simple in its construction – essentially a song cycle – and hypnotic in its delivery. Kelly’s voice is beautiful and clear, the video work is expert and effective. I wish I had some MP3s of the music to share with you – it is hard to describe. But Kelly’s years interpreting the work of Joni Mitchell are in evidence here. Her influence on his vocal style and song structures is clear. Kelly has a way of painting pictures with words and music that is vivid and transporting. Even when he is interpreting other people’s music it becomes very much his own.

The thought of being trapped in one’s body, alone with your thoughts, is scary. But Kelly’s vivid imagination, the poignancy of his insights and reflections, bring us into a world that is rich and rewarding. If your’e going to spend some time in someone else’s mind you could do much worse than the beautiful universe that is John Kelly’s imagination. Go see for yourself.

The Escape Artist continues at PS122 through April 30.

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