Stranger Things: Dane Terry’s Jupiter’s Lifeless Moons, directed and developed by Ellie Heyman, Performance Space 122, Coil Festival
Jupiter’s Lifeless Moons is a rollercoaster. Literally. It’s the ride at an amusement park in the Pepper Heights suburb of Cleveland, Ohio where “Dane” has a part-time gig. Ushered in all at once for the show, we are immersed in pulsing house beats, blinking lights, and ominous blue smoke. A synthesizer sits center stage with a mirror angled behind it. Terry opens by recounting a recurring erotic dream with hyperbolic seriousness (we begin the first ascent) involving a predatory ancient fish (click-click-click). His eyes dart, fixing each of us in place, and we’re gleefully locked in for his queer cabaret odyssey. Flanked by a powerhouse trio of goth glam women (Avery Leigh Draut, Morgan Meadows, Saretta Wesley) who do everything from the Andrew’s Sisters and a drag number to Italian arias— Terry shepherds us through storytelling, theater, and song on an absurdist Lynchian dive into the creepy under belly of the suburban Midwest town.
It’s present iPhone and Grindr days, but filled with bygone tropes of villains, goons, and sidekicks. Dane’s boss (the sinister Elias Critch) oversees the park’s animals, including a former NASA test chimp and Zoe the zebra who attacked a child, and now awaits controversial euthanization. Dane sleeps at a friend’s place across from an empty house for sale where he watches the realtor sneak in to meet for a quick tryst with Luke, a teenager Dane spies in a neighboring yard. They meet and it turns out Luke is an InstaStar advocate for Zoe. And so (obvi) Dane joins forces with Luke and the three girls—now Charlie’s Angels slash girl scout-animal activists. The show is loosely motivated by making sense of his repeat dream of the prehistoric fish on a quest for something to devour and the community’s underground efforts to save Zoe.
I don’t know which Terry’s better at— storytelling or song. Even when he’s not playing the piano as background, sound effect, or catchy tune, his hands move as if floating on an invisible set of three-dimensional keys. Language-wise, he has a gift for hilarious analogies: one of the girls talks in that “creepy way kids raised by their grandparents do” and he’s startled by a sound as if “someone left a baby in a cave” (even though he amusingly reflects that he has no idea what that would even sound like). The “terrible screaming skull behind” the aisles of the grocery store at night reveal it as a death permeated “plant and animal ward.” And, after witnessing the steam of Luke’s pee rising under the spotlight of suburban motion lights, he reports feeling “like a boy after his first magic show.”
But it’s also the way he embeds and traverses through, above, around, and into narratives. The way his story thread moves in and out of layered spaces from the micro to the macro brings to mind Chris Ware’s architectural graphic novels or a set of punky tattooed matryoshka dolls. For example, he turns a jazzy commercial musical homage to the grocery store into a parody of generalized ‘European’ dramatic singing. He then zooms out into a public radio voice for 89.7 Classical Cleveland, where we presumably heard that previous song, and launches into a special program on little known waltzes composed for presidential inaugurations, which he then plays. Who cares where we are in the story, because his ability to ventriloquize so many musical styles and voices makes these maneuvers charm.
I can’t exactly say what I’m supposed to make of the ideological choice the show seems to revolve around, the one presented to the kids after the rollercoaster ride. Dane’s job is to ask the children to make a selection once they disembark the ride: press the GREEN button to offer up your found helium or RED, to report no helium found, thus saving the aliens who depend upon it for their survival. The red button is well worn from the repeat hands of hopeful 44 inchers, eager to save the aliens. When presented with the choice by Critch at the end, Dane presses neither and instead heads deeper down into some muddy mineshaft where he finds not one, but two (!) matching fossils of the predatory fish that’s haunted his, and Luke’s dreams. They may also hook-up here (natch).
No matter, Terry masterfully swerves from a Stranger Things level campy portentous, tapping that one suspenseful piano note again and again, into the hilarious millennial mundane. (He’s working at the park because he accidentally walked into a mirror at American Apparel). And he’s an intensely engaging performer who manages 100 minutes of mostly straight monologue and original songs (with the help of the three accompanying musicians and some sharp lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins), who also paused mid-action to greet a latecomer, promising to “fill him in later.” In other words, he’s so present we have to be too.
Throughout, I kept seeing different versions of Terry’s face, which I know sounds dumb. That’s what a performer does, right? They morph their person into different, distinguishable shapes. But there wasn’t a limit point in Jupiter’s Lifeless Moons. I kept seeing new, subtle versions of what and who Terry holds. So even though the show ranged a bit past what the premise and promise could hold, I’m convinced that I haven’t seen it all. Given Terry’s extraordinary dexterity with language, physical and vocal performance, and sheer songwriting talent, I’m definitely grabbing a ticket for the next ride.