Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ah My Pretty Poppet

First there's the egg.

Then there's the sperm.

The first spermatozoa that buggers its way into the egg, crosses a translucent membrane—the zona pellucida— that surrounds the ovum, and bzzzssstst!, there's fusion and a chain reaction which transforms the zona from penetrable to impenetrable. It lets one in, and then becomes a repulsing barrier.

hmmmm, biology, so interesting.

That mysterious membrane, zona pellucida, inspired the title of a multivalent performance by a Canadian team of artists, 2boys, Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard, played the New Conservatory Theatre Center, SF, the month of August. So rich, so layered, I wish I'd seen it more than once.
I'll tell you what I did see.

Yeowza honey! I can see your tonsils from here!

Yes, that's Stephen Lawson, lip-synch, drag performer extraordinaire lolling about in nurse's uniform, garters and hose while video plays upon her body and beyond. Lawson performs, mimes, moves; Aaron Pollard directs the audio and video which overlay and underplay, seamlessly weaving in and out of the live and cut-n-spliced performances of Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis...

Here are men working with iconic women who performed characters written and directed by men, characters of women breaking up, breaking down, snapping and cracking, under pressure, under strain, twisted and tweaked. Lawson in perfect rhythm and syncopation, mouths the terrible lines, confusion and sorrow, with vintage gestures, shoes and clothes. Her nightmare phantom is man in drag too—zoömorphic drag: naked man with bear's head menacing in video. In a stunning bit of shadow play, Lawson interacts with the bear-man/bare-man video projection, her shadow another phantom figure on a flowing translucent veil.

It's all about the veil—the thin layer between what's real, imagined, projected, introjected—the thin layer that holds one together or is torn and everything comes tumbling out.

Screams, for instance. The same scream sequence played over and over. Over and over. And just when you think it's over, over again. It's over the top but not just camp, this is when it works, when it goes over the line and into that zone where it isn't sketch comedy, but the taut point where you finally see the thing, and it hurts. The agony in the ecstasy. Munch's Scream. You've seen it before. Then you see it.

I loved this performance, the intersections of methods of delivery: audio-visual, live-recorded, using the vernacular of drag, silent film, melodrama—and puppets. A choice portion was originally a shorter piece called Nanny (see it on the website.) Lawson, in a school-marmish black outfit, opens the curtains on a miniature puppet stage as simultaneously a video of the stage is projected on the curtains. Inside the video stage is a miniature Lawson who sings and dances while live Lawson takes another part, interacting with her. Split screen, split personality, the double, the twin, party girl and sister wound a little too tight. Mind you, this is all spliced audio and perfectly lip synched. It was seamless and riveting.

There's always been something wrong. Always, just as long as I can remember.

I'm guilty.
I'm guilty.
I'm guilty.

So does it all come down to biology? At least as metaphor. The male penetrates the female. Crossing the barrier, into that mysterious permeable zone, fusing and transforming, such is drag. Where does the man start and the woman (manufactured) begin? The heroines and victims of Tennessee Williams and Joseph Mankiewicz, mainstay fantasy images of what it is to be feminine: emotionally responsive, malleable, confused, expressive. Mainstay for a reason. Nothing better displays the torment of gender identity under conventional constraints. High heels and girdles. Nor the torment of love. That's timeless, the feeling of being under a spell, caught, no will of your own. A fool for love, heart on a string....I'm your puppet.

The Puppet Show

This reminds me that last month I was in LA and saw The Puppet Show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

"In a time when communication seems increasingly mediated and individual agency diminished, puppets abstract the dramas, mysteries, anxieties, and personas we might all project onto a shared stage," says the gallery notes. Yes. As a culture we are feeling jerked around and helpless.

27 artists showing—what I liked best were the video booths.

The twisted video tales by Nathalie Djurberg of Sweden, for instance. Madeline the Brave, a plasticine puppet princess on a garden swing, sweet with rabbits and squirrels, until you notice her rabid teeth.

And Doug Skinner and Michael Smith doing Doug and Mike's Adult Entertainment—no Saturday morning kiddie show this, just using the props and tropes of such to twisted devices. Doggie Do in the Vegetable Crisper. That's all that needs saying.

And Paul McCarthy as big-nosed clown painter bumbling around a claustrophobic set hauling massive paint tubes and then ... omg ... smashing his big bulbous thumb, over and over, with a meat cleaver—as only Paul McCarthy can do. Did I mention the tubes of paint are labeled "Flesh," "Shit," and "Black?" Black, of course.

Guy Ben-Ner made his penis into puppet singing karaoke to "Lipstick on Your Collar." Penis drag.

The video of Survival Research Lab's 2004 performance in LA of shock and awe destruction in some warehouse lot involving flame throwers, projectiles, animal-machine robots, fork lifts and smoke, sparks and noise, set my teeth on edge for the raging, screeching noise searing my ears through head phones. Awesome.

And Bruce Nauman's simple looped sequence of a man and woman assaulting one another. A Violent Incident happens around the dinner table. It's a knock out.

There were sculptures too. Louise Bourgeois'— a hanging piece made with fabrics and stuffing—was disturbing as old, memory-laden materials can be, especially when stuffed and shaped like penile appendages. And Kiki Smith's Nuit: cast arms and legs hung suspended just inches from the floor as though to touch it, somehow sadly. These I liked very much. But video was the thing—the puppet theme almost a strained excuse to showcase a wonderfully diverse array of video works showing mostly twisted scenes.

Video takes the cake.

But then... there was the Puppet Storage Room, an antechamber filled with marionettes, Balinese shadow puppets, hand puppets, dummies, etc., all behind chicken wire, all mute, 'cept Pee Wee Herman—well, not his puppet likeness but the real thing (the real persona thing, if you know what I mean) on a small screen cavorting in his playhouse! Pee Wee, the ultimate human puppet.

Biology pics courtesy of Wikipedia