AT HOME WITH THE HUMORLESS BASTARD
I was raised in an environment in which bad behavior was assumed an anomaly: “I’m sorry, I’m just not myself today.” Years ago, I was visiting a friend for Thanksgiving, at a time of my life so lonely I was willing to take two buses for twelve hours each way. At the end of my trip, as my friend drove me back to the bus station, I was anxious about her demeanor and felt I needed a warm goodbye. I said something as much, to which she said, “I’m just as much myself now as I am when I’m in a good mood.”
Early in Annie Wilson’s At Home With the Humorless Bastard, she tells us that three months before she began making this piece, her sister died suddenly. It made her realize that her raison d’etre for making dances – to literally save the lives of those she loves – is irrational and, she implies, it threw a sort of monkey wrench into the piece’s process.
From the very beginning of the show to the end, Wilson’s demeanor is unsmiling, almost as though she does not care if you are watching her or not. She starts the piece halfheartedly, bringing items onto the stage to set up, and she finishes with an “Okay, I’m going to go now, thanks” instead of a bow.
Wilson’s gloomy display of affect alludes to the dilemma that all those who are grieving face: do you 1) put on a smiling, brave face and mourn in private, or 2) be fully present as your glum self: “This is all I got for you today.” Shrug. Were I performing while grieving a sibling’s death, I would almost certainly do the former, at the detriment to my own presence onstage. Watching Wilson present as the latter for the duration of her hour-fifteen show was initially jarring, a tad off-putting, but ultimately quite moving.
When you walk into the small theater at JACK, its walls plastered with foil, the stage is covered with wax paper. Large cardboard tubes in various states of uprightness lie around the stage, as does a large plastic tub of water, a couple pillows, what looks like a large mass of bloody pulp in a tarp suspended overhead. In my program I see there is to be both nudity and audience participation. The nudity, I think, Fine. The audience participation I just hope won’t come to me.
Humorless Bastard has a sort of fluid beginning, as we watch Wilson set up and putz around the stage, go to the bathroom in preparation. As the lights dim, she begins to sing… something about home. She uses a low, garbled voice that sounds drunk at times, tear-laden at others. At some point her movements become more repetitive, rotational, whiplash-like. I felt like maybe I was watching a standard sort of emotion-generating acting exercise, until I heard her loud exhalations begin to sound like “you,” a grunting exhale that seemed like it wanted to expel the word, propel it out of Wilson’s body, to repel the word from not just her vocabulary but from her very mind, soul, conceptualization of the universe.
A little later. After shaking a hefty dose of glitter into the plastic storage container with a bit of water, Wilson–having abandoned her bathrobe and fully nude–steps in and then fully squeezes herself into it. The plastic cracks, and Wilson says to the container, “Well fuck you,” then to us, “Get ready to run if this explodes, I guess.” with neither alacrity nor sarcasm. Just, plain. Candid.
The tank holds though, and we watch her immerse her full body one, two, three times. The glitter sticks as she emerges, and she is quite covered in it. Later she’ll ask the audience, “Who wants to be hugged by a naked girl covered in glitter?” before sidling into the next segment of the piece.
The ease with which she transitioned from low-pitched moans, to chatting with the audience, to gathering some members onstage with her, to monologuing once more struck me every time. My favorite instance was when she was giving instructions to a bunch of audience members, telling them they were to behave as though at a sports bar, watching the game, drinking beer, wanting to drink beer, wanting to drink the best beer, the hoppiest IPA, the hottest fucking wings… at some point, we realize, she has herself slipped from giving instructions to embodying them as she began the scene with her impression of a person drunk in a bar. Her humor at times like these punctured the heavy meditation on death without glossing over it, without pretending everything was okay.
As it continued, I felt prudish but still thought, Why the nudity? What is it doing? A bit later, I beheld Wilson’s glum face as she talked to us in a way I’d probably be very frustrated by if we were friends. I thought, Wait why don’t I feel alienated?
Ah; the nudity. It’s difficult to mistake a person’s willingness to be vulnerable when they are naked onstage in such an extended and vigorous way that you can see the tampon string hanging between her legs. She trusted us before we gave her any reason to, and so I did not need to wonder if she was taking care of her audience when she performed over an hour with maybe one full smile.
On my subway ride home after the show, I couldn’t decide how I felt about the show, at first. I experienced the sudden loss of a family friend a couple weeks ago. While I wasn’t close to the person, I am close to her parents, and watching them begin to cope with a very tragic death has led me to reflect upon loss more than usual. After watching Humorless Bastard, my performance barometer felt unsteady because I feared my deep feelings about the piece were influenced by recent experience; I “only” found it moving because it related to me personally.
But then I thought, isn’t that the point? I don’t think you make a piece that really wrestles with death, or grief, in order to illustrate or instruct others as to what loss feels like. You do it to bear witness, to encourage others to bear witness, to perform the act of mourning itself. Annie Wilson gave so much of herself to us, her audience, but she also allowed her presence to protect her at the same time. Genuine, soft, at times frightening.
When a relative of my aforementioned family friend received the news, his wife described his reaction thusly: “He made a sound I have never heard come out of him before.” Death does weird and contradictory things to us. I’m grateful Wilson allowed us a piece of insight into what it’s done to her.