What’s YOUR Problem? – A response to Lisa Clair’s “deep space lounge act” at the Wild Project

Photo by Maria Baranova

In her remarkable “deep space lounge act,” What’s YOUR Problem?—presented on January 6 at the Wild Project as part of the Special Effects Festival—Lisa Rafaela Clair crooned and belted a mash-up of Multiple Sclerosis and an alien invasion.

In a series of gorgeous songs—some standards, some written by Clair and collaborator Brian McCorkle—Clair reckons with an autoimmune disease that, over time, damages the myelin sheath of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Clair’s glamorous lounge-singing alter ego delves into the emotional depths of Clair’s health crisis at the same time she craves desperately to remain in the starrier realm of sequins, deep space, and pop culture. And why not? Clair’s cabaret persona is bedazzled, witty, and magnetic. Her voice is huge, by turns brassy and sensuous, and she can crack jokes and spin yarns with the best of them.

For Clair, the first manifestation of MS was deafness in her right ear. Like the alien creatures that the tyrant Khan implants in the ears of his victims to render them susceptible to mind control. (The Wrath of Khan is just one of Clair’s many intergalactic inter-texts.)

MS disrupts communication within the nervous system—which is to say, the system by which the brain controls the body. The peculiar bitterness of the disease is its capacity to hijack Clair’s creative and intellectual work, to make her own mind alien to her.  Over the course of What’s YOUR Problem?, Clair elegantly applies the metaphor of alien invasion to her illness, illuminating the workings of an autoimmune disorder through a series of vital images and soundscapes.

In the stunning original song “Waiting Room,” the warm notes of the piano transpose first into the blips of an MRI machine and then into the cold beep and swirl of outer space. The play’s final image picks up this image, with an illuminated Clair sparkling inside a space helmet that is at once a sign of her illness—and her transcendence of it.

In thinking through Clair’s metaphor these past two weeks, I have found myself also tempted to apply the metaphor to the Trump administration, with its alleged ties to an alien government now under investigation by five agencies. Like an autoimmune disease in which a body’s response to a perceived “invasion” outpaces the threat and becomes its own greatest danger, Trump and the Republicans are using the government to attack the most basic and essential functions of the government.

The metaphor of a sick nation becomes troublingly literal, of course, when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. Not just a threat to the metaphorical “health” of the government—its national security, its financial and ethical well-being—in their efforts to repeal the ACA, Republicans become a threat to the literal health of the nation, by which I mean the people of this nation—36,000 of whom may die without the coverage the ACA provides.

What’s YOUR Problem?, performed in the penumbra of Trump’s election, grapples with this reality head-on. And there is a meta-dramatic satisfaction to watching and hearing Clair rise so splendidly above the constraints of a disease that, as she noted in an earlier interview published on this site, was first set in motion by the stress of the creative process. “Creation can be healing, but also destructive,” she wrote, and “I think for me it is very much both, and the interplay of the two is exciting, but…a challenge.”

This balancing act—which lends verve to Clair’s athletic performance and pathos to her alter ego’s frequent attempts to dodge the issue—is further complicated by the fact that creation can be healing, but it isn’t health insurance, and it’s far from remunerative. In addition to coping with a creative process that is intimately connected with the symptoms of her MS, Clair must also confront the fact that the new administration’s plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act will necessarily place her art and her health even more squarely at odds.

But as she sings in her stunning original “Lady Luminous,” “Some people are chosen to be great / Other people are chosen to be great in the face of shit / And because of that shit / Standing within a giant and beautiful mound of shit / That they sparkle extra hard inside of / That’s me right now.”

Indeed, Clair may be at her most stunningly charismatic in those moments when, like a latter-day version of Beckett’s Winnie, she shoots the shit from inside a mound of it, glittering wryly and bravely through these difficult days.

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