Aug 28, 2011

An Apology to the Pi Clowns

I like you guys too much to write a story about you.

So all I am going to post are my polished-up notes -- snap-shots, bits & pieces of this transcendentally silly clown troupe from San Francisco and their singular show. They were the artists-in-residence at the Berkshire Fringe for this season.

A brief note to explain my perspective: I was on tech duty for this show, so I saw everything from the gridwork above the theater. The pi clowns mostly handle all their own props -- all that I had to do was stay perched up there waiting for my cue to drop two toy parachute men down onstage when Bruce sends a paper airplane crashing into the wall.

 - The Pi Clowns are: Andrew (Quick the Stick), Leah (Miz G), Tyler (the Juggler), Jon (Macho. Manly. Fuzzy. MONSTER-STRONG), and Bruce (Bruce).
 - The Thrust: the clowns' pre-show ritual... in which they huddle up, settle into the moment with a sigh, tilt back pelvises and crush them all together simultaneously while making silly wheedling & animal-happy sounds. From above, it looks like a red and black sunflower ruffled with hair, white faces popping out like petals. The point is not to make an orgasm noise, exactly, but to expunge all stress out in noise (as silly as possible, of course)
 - Pre-show atmosphere: I'm sitting here in the burlesque glow of pink lighting above an empty stage, an audience humming with anticipation below, marinating in that old squeezebox carnie music... and then Andrew steps out onstage -- slowly, alone, staring down the audience.
 - The Pi Clowns definitely utilize their environment to create a new show every night -- its structure is constantly changing and evolving and flying off the seat of its pants. They listen to their audience, climb all over them, steal their purses (only to give them back with a shame-faced grin), and crawl into their arms to die heroically. This is all literal, by the way.
 - At a talkback after one of the shows, someone asks where the troupe got its name and Andrew (who studied math along with theater at UC Santa Cruz, where all the Pi Clowns met), jumps in: "Pi is irrational and transcendental, and we thought, well... that's perfect."
 - Another pre-show ritual: sliding down the sloping concrete hallway backstage in rolling office chairs, whooping and yahoo-ing.
 - Tyler's final juggling solo is pure magic. All the lights are out, and he is juggling with three glowing balls -- two orange, one blue -- that look like frolicking planets as he tosses them around wildly to an Irish step jig that accelerates into ecstasy and then dissolves into a violin strain that drifts off into space.

You can follow these lovely fools and possibly become their groupie by going here: 

(will write more later... when I'm not drowning in a hurricane and basting in humidity)

Aug 25, 2011

NYC notes, #4: Alexander McQueen

July 8
The savage ghost of Alexander McQueen has kept museum-goers at the Met up past midnight for the first time in the museum's history. According to Time magazine, 66,509 people visited the exhibit during its run (May - August 2011); making it the 8th most-attended event in the museum's history. Clearly something extraordinary was going on inside that dark twisting labyrinth of rooms that constituted "Savage Beauty", a retrospective exhibit on his avant-garde fashion concoctions.

Alexander McQueen. Buddies with Lady Gaga. That was only shred of pre-existing knowledge I took with me to the exhibit; besides the facts of the obituary. He hung himself in his closet full of cocaine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. His mother had died nine days earlier, and her funeral was that evening. He left a simple note that read: "Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee" (a nickname). He was forty years old.

McQueen was a self-described romantic schizophrenic; therefore, this exhibit was constructed around the theme of romanticism. McQueen's particular brand of romanticism consists of uneasy pleasure, incredulity and revulsion, wonder and terror blending together to create the sublime. The show was divided into further segments based on further themes: individualism, historicism, nationalism, exoticism, primitivism, and naturalism. It was all very academically-plotted, but that couldn't stifle the raw power of McQueen's creations.

Image smash, first impressions (because the thing is a sensory overload):
 - eerie electronica droning over the crowd
 - a dripping blazer with blood lining and human hair
 - space whores & frothing burlesque ballerinas. Angels of the postmodern denarrative world
 - gorgeous gloom -- black marble & mirrors
 - the Spine Corset: aluminum and black leather, bondage of the human form. Skeleton frames for flesh.
 - wings and feathers, talons and fibulae. Plastic bones.
 - Joan '98: a red-draped model dancing in a ring of fire, becoming a gyrating priestess
 - gold thorns down the arm, crowning the head, face-mask of bright-red dripping blood -- deadly beautiful
 - rotating girls in purple flowery football bodysuits
 - silver barbs stabbing cheeks, hair covering face in a smooth mask, petticoat of glossy shells: masochistic
 - nature, aliens, bondage, rot, fire, lace, gauze, flowers ("I used flowers because they die"), heartbreaking fluttering beauty, the rolling mud dirge of time

I'm circling in tight lines of people passing in front of these clouded, bombed-out old mirrors in the gaudy gold of old art frames lining the walls. People's reflections bob up briefly, confusedly. I overheard one man telling his companion, "It's actually very beautiful. Actually... gorgeous, isn't it?... Beautiful...", very surprised. People were very excited and talkative at this exhibit, and Gaga's name was repeated through the crowd like a hypnotic helpless tongue-tripping virus.

One of the rooms is a hall with scarlet and bloodied devils lined up along stone castle walls glowing with fire like a royal court at attention, facing the oncoming crowd. The most dramatic and beautiful classical soundtrack is bathing the awestruck hordes. These halls of bloody gentry all have gold-studded masks, and the finery is truly spectacular. This is the Nationalism room, filled with pieces inspired by McQueen's Scottish heritage (all black, red, and white -- lots of plaid, checkers, lace, patterns orderly and disoriented by turns).

Just to give an example of the performance art style of these fashion presentations... There was a dress called Highland Rape; hanging synthetic lace with spiderweb twine, autumn-flower colors torn apart, a gaping hole at the plump white mannequin crotch. An electric guitar "Star-Spangled Banner" plays overhead. Exhibit background of rough, brutalized barn wood walls. Spectacular terror. There are sobbing violins in the next room... A cluster of people is jostling around a box in the wall. It's... a tiny matted-hair Barbie whirling in white gauze ruffles of swan feathers, suspended in a glass pyramid until she melts into a glowing ball of life that blips away into space. The atmosphere was heartbreaking, entrancing, like watching a flower grow in fast-forward; violins falling apart sweetly, suffused with tears. This kind of occurrence in Alexander McQueen's work is what makes it so hard to pin down in a critical mindset -- how could this kind of thing ever be considered shallow? As art, it is magnificent, unexpected, fresh, raw, lavishly lovely. As fashion, a product and market line, it is extravagant and almost painful to consider wearing. These clothes all have fantasy personalities, and occupy the realm of the alien other -- where beauty is daring and absolutely free.

Like Lady Gaga, one of McQueen's passions seems to be the thrill of the chase to grab the public's attention and slay them with art. He wants them to see the possibilities inherent in the human form, the logical extreme of lust and romance, by brutalizing it (somewhat) and putting it on display. Near the end of the exhibit is a video being shown inside a glass box. In slow-motion, the walls of a box standing in a bare industrial room fall and smash, sending sparkling glass flying in flurries. Inside the box is a fat model lounging on a couch, swarmed with butterflies, a gas-mask on her face. We watch her gently heave as she breathes, staring abstractly down at the floor. The film ends, and the audience's reflection surfaces in the glass box the video was shown in. A rapid-fire series of realizations occur: they see themselves staring, they see themselves, and a few women automatically send up fidgeting hands to fix their hair.

On a placard mounted on the wall beside the glass box, McQueen says, "In this collection the idea was to turn people's faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think: Am I actually as good as what I'm looking at? The show was staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, whereby the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show had started. These beautiful models were walking around in the room, and then suddenly this woman who couldn't be considered beautiful was revealed. It was about trying to trap something that wasn't conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within." Unfortunately, Lee wasn't able to hang onto his inner beauty long enough.

Alexander McQueen, the brightest star in the fashion world just snuffed out.

Aug 21, 2011

NYC notes, #3: The Carnie Glory of Coney Island

July 11: I wanted to go there & write Ferlinghetti-style odes on picture postcards to every strange little nook of life I saw amid the screaming neon marquee madness, but we ended up just spending a day at the beach instead. While my friends were in the water, I sat in the sand and watched families unpack their lunches, couples stretched out on towels, stubby old men peddling mangoes across the sand... and one beautiful Mexican/Hispanic/Italian/who-knows man with spiky black hair and a tattoo of the Madonna spread all down his back, rays shooting out from her pliant robed loveliness and pinging off his pointed shoulder-blades.

            Coney Island is a huge carnival, in a perpetual state of Fourth of July, tinged with a forbidden fading despair that reeks of gypsy carnival. I was enchanted by everything I saw – just the spread of colors and lights and explosions of life when you turn to look back down the beach is enough to melt the heart of any Americana romantic (which I am, undoubtedly). We played in a dingy arcade, ring-tossed, browsed cheap sunglasses & hair-clips & Chinese groceries. Dinner at a buffet beneath the rattling train-tracks.

            Mostly to say that I did, I got a psychic palm-reading from an overflowingly large woman leaning back in her lawn-chair along the boardwalk, her huge brown serious scam eyes globbing meaning onto mine. She told me a lot of easily applicable things in a musky foreign accent, such as: I have something holding me back from my cherished future, I have gone to psychics before but they never helped (false), that I need to avoid romantic relationships because they had been disastrous recently. So, she basically listed all of the reasons that someone would ever go to a psychic, seeking answers to their life’s little struggles on the wayside of Coney Island's mystical, reality-defying carnival atmosphere. The most amazing thing was how seamlessly she launched into her sales schpele. Mid-sentence, without changing the cadence or tone of her voice while she was looking into my eyes and telling me about my life, she said, “Now why won’t you let me help you by buying this crystal that will help to balance your chakaras?”

            I thought that freakshows had been outlawed, but right next to the fortune-teller there was a man in suspenders & gray whiskers on a soapbox selling tickets to Coney Island’s very own home-grown freakshow, The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, only five dollars. The audience is squashed into rows of soft, old wooden bleachers in a dim-lit theater (atmosphere of intrigue... the venue also doubles as a late-nite burlesque). The MC, Insectavora, was a woman in long, banshee-black dreadlocks, thoroughly tattooed, the right side of her face marbled into a Mayan ruin. She closed out the show with a breathtakingly beautiful fire twirler-swallower-spitter-flinger act. I saw her reared back with a flame curling out bright-yellow from between her kissing lips, a torch held in each hand. She was also scheduled to appear in the burlesque show later that night. Around 11 pm that night I saw her walking down the street, talking to friends she passed in doorways, looking like Amy Winehouse in a black tank-top & her black dreadlocks piled high.

            There was the Illustrated Penguin, a little man with hands but no arms, who drove a screwdriver into his nose – a trick called the Back-Alley Brain Surgeon. There was a buxom bondaged woman who danced with a pale-gold python (Serpentina), a Southern woman who escaped from a straightjacket with much sighing and laughing to the audience, a burly man who lifted weights with his earlobes and bottom eyelids. Screaming kids, squirming women, awestruck men. An old, old piano kept dusty vaudeville vigil over the show from the back wall.

            After walking around until dark in the vast human carnival, through the old and new sections of rides and games, we rode the famous 90-year-old Cyclone roller-coaster. The whole thing is made of rattling white wood, and feels like it's threatening to collapse at every moment. The riding arc caught the milky half-moon glowing at the very cusp of the first drop before we all went down screaming and clenching our teeth. I was in the last car, with the most bone-scraping neck-cracking whiplash. Staggered off dazed, violated, happy & dripping with adrenaline.

NYC notes, #2: Gay Pride Parade

June 26: There is a breed of men who watch street action in the city from their balcony windows with cigarettes and cynicism. I saw one lone golden-skinned, grocer-armed, mean-looking motherfucker looking down on the parade going by today — the only one who didn’t crack a smile. On every street there were people watching from windows, balconies, and rooftops.

I saw beautiful freaks, shaved & greased Mediterranean men with gauzy neon fairy wings and glue-diamond-encrusted eyes, black bodybuilders in bondage, congressmen waving and pandering to the whooping crazies in the crowd leaning out over the blockades onto the shoulders of cops, soliciting hugs and kisses from passers-by. I joined the march mostly for the amazing vantage-point — I got to see the city's entire population, or so it seemed, streaming out around me from the middle of the street.

There was confetti dripping from the trees. There were people crowding the sidewalks, swinging off poles like sugar-hyped monkeys, hip-thrusting at traffic-lights, lounging on tenement balconies, standing lined up in shop windows like warm grinning mannequins, on the roofs looking down on this rainbow caterpillar wiggle-line dominating the streets of New York City. I had no props — not even a gay pride flag — though I wish I did. I wish I could’ve swirled in with my lime & magenta psychedelic priestess shawl that was lying scrunched in the bottom of my suitcase back at the apartment.

The parade petered out in Greenwich Village, & I was left milling around tents of free condoms, sex-ed brocures, rainbow hemp jewelry, and sizzling mozzarella corncake patties. Almost got picked up by a skinny Columbia-grad skeezball who said that it would be in the spirit of the occasion if we went off and had random sex.

Aug 19, 2011

NYC notes, #1

I spent three weeks this summer staying with my college roommate in the Bronx and exploring New York City; taking notes all the time, preparing to write something more structured later. There are some events that are posts unto themselves (Gay Pride Parade, Henry V on Governor's Island, Alexander McQueen at the Met, the Coney Island Freak-show...), but here are some brief snippets.

June 27: I saw a model come to life in front of the Guggenheim today. A luxuriantly-curled redhead, popping her joints and pouting, breathing lightly from winnowed creamy cheeks while her photographer crouched on the pavement & some Hispanic boys looked on, leaning on a mailbox smoking cigarettes and drinking orange juice.

June 29: Arthur Avenue Market, Little Italy, Bronx. Hand-rolled cigars while you wait (huge brown tobacco leaves, crumpled & compounded into thick tubes), barrels of olives and salted capers, chunks of parmesan shaved off by a burly-armed grocer (this guy, having received the knowledge that I was from Vermont, wanted some maple syrup in return for a cheese sample he had given me — “What, you don’t just carry it around with you?”). There was some kind of corporate party being held in the market, with hors d’oeuvre of pizza slivers, olives, fruit skewers, mini cannoli. A painted piano in the middle of the tables, played by an old man in sparkling, tinkling, flamboyant, very old-world honky-tonk style. The mother of the deli owner got up in her sensible beige pumps to sing an old Italian song, voice still quavering with power & passion, & everyone applauded. It was priceless. Dinner at Dominick’s family-style restaurant, where the waiters loom over you & look at you closely with dark, inscrutinable eyes. A businessman named Greg joined us. A bit about Greg:   - he was wearing a summer suit he didn’t want to spill on but always manages to — light beige, pink shirt
 - warm, sea-nuanced blue eyes shooting out light from a tanned face, chubby around the edges
 - loud, chatty, emotional Italian from Pittsburgh who grew up right here and used to eat lunch at Dominick’s every day as a kid
 - still has dinner at his mom’s house every night
 - heading out to a Yankees game that night
I loved this guy. It sounds callous to characterize him instantly, but he was a perfect relic; a perfect accent to the whole scene.

July 3: I'm on Fire Island, watching speedboats make white lace tears through the dark water. It's gray, sweating light rain, altogether very hazy. Yesterday, we were walking on dark sterile concrete streets that criss-cross the island, through groves of overhanging trees& house-parties. Standing on the steps to the beach under a silver palette of stars, simmering in the sound of sea-woosh & red-faced drunken cocky declamations coming from the mansion behind us. This is definitely a summertown -- a place that only exists for the summer, used as a tourism playground & get-away. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe used to come here.

July 5: I went to a centennial celebration exhibit at the New York Public Library and saw Jack Kerouac’s sunglasses, Malcolm X’s briefcase, Mark Twain’s letter-opener (the handle of which is the taxidermied paw of his favorite pet cat), & the lock of dark auburn hair that Mary Shelley tied up with tiny white fingers and sent to Percy when she was only seventeen.

July 6: Today, there was a Wall St. broker/executive/Patrick Bateman type guy walking down the street in a black suit that positively glistened in the sun, earphones blasting music, a cigarette held between his teeth. Swaggering skinny shoulders. An air of absolute imperviousness.

July 8: 3 am, and I'm sitting up in the living room; vermilion lipstick still smeared on my face and blaring out in the empty silence like a siren. Tonight was the night of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We set out on a drizzly gray evening looking like tramps -- boots, fishnets, miniskirts, and elbow-length black lace gloves. Confronting the streets like this is a very unique experience... At the movie theater, there were freaks & geeks & a few token whores. There were also two lovely transvestites who couldn't dance in their tight skirts, but I whirled like a dervish to pre-show pop-punk & disco. The cast was big, brash, vulgar, all-out-there, as they should be... but somehow too intensely self-conscious and referential to be welcoming. Rocky himself was a marble-white specimen with blue eyes & a blonde stoner shag. Virgin sacrifice: make your best orgasm noise into a microphone. The whole thing was like a silly, late-night circus of sexuality with some sacramental call-backs & songs thrown in to draw the audience in. I did a lot of shouting at the screen, of course, along with the other fans in the audience. Coming back home in the early hours of the morning, the subway was eerie and deserted; and of course the strange, askance looks couldn't be helped.

July 13: The open-air fish market in Chinatown is sparkling with flies over the smooth pink & gray-mottled cold scaly sides of meat. Glassy doll eyes on ice. One huge severed head with lips delicately hung open, exposing a bristle-line of thin razor teeth. Whole blue crabs suspended in dead animation with claws out.

July 14: I gave $5 to a man leaning against the wall of a tunnel in Central Park playing "My Way" on smooth saxophone, its echo dilating into a sublime sepulchral moan for the ages. He smiled at me from beneath his hat, between notes.

Aug 18, 2011

The Rocky Horror Show

(Note: I wrote this review of Dartmouth's 2010 Rocky Horror production for my short-lived-and-barely-noticed high school online newspaper. It was the first piece of journalism I ever attempted, and I'm still fairly proud of it. At the time, I knew nothing about Rocky Horror -- since the time that this was written, I have seen the show many times and also played Riff-Raff in a shadowcast performance at my own college.)

You’re a virgin if you’ve never seen the Rocky Horror Show. On Thursday night I went to see a production of it at Dartmouth College, utterly unprepared. I was with a family of fans; each had shared delirious quips of excitement with me over dinner, but I still had no idea what the show was about. I was eager but entirely unprepared. So… the lights dimmed over the audience (flashing with bright feather boas and metallic suits), and piano chords swelled through the theater to begin the opening number. Icy rays shot from an overhanging disco-ball as a diva in hippie glasses, a black bob wig, and plaid schoolgirl uniform draped herself over the microphone, languorous and sultry and sinister, licking the air ferociously as she sang… welcome to the show.

There are no inhibitions in Rocky Horror; the cast crawled all over each other, all over the stage, down into the audience. The costumes were all bondage – fishnets, boas, garter-belts with straining hooks – except for the two bewildered innocents (Brad and Janet, played perfectly by Jay Ben Markson and Talene Monahon), who were soon stripped down to their white linen underwear. Their reactions to the weird inhabitants of the castle (Frank-N-Furter and his gathering of Transylvanians from the planet Transsexual) parallel the shock and delight of any newcomer to Rocky Horror. Once they are violated and their conventional morals flagrantly ignored, Brad and Janet become caught up in the absurd joy of the whole thing and end up camping it up along with everyone else. Possibly the greatest moment of the show, among many, was the sight of Brad stretched out onstage, one pale Ivy League leg sliding up through a feather boa, singing: “What’s this? Let’s see… I feel sexy!”

During intermission, the “creatures of the night” prowled down into the crowd, dancing with girls from the audience who were simply shrieking from happiness (and if you’ve never heard of the Time Warp, “it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insay-ay-ay-ayne.”) I watched one huge silver-haired boy in a frock coat and metallic-red platforms stand onstage, flicking a whip, seemingly entranced by his own power. He slowly walked down onto the floor and straddled a girl in her seat, leaning over and smiled leeringly at the row behind her: “And how are we all doing tonight?” The fourth wall is smashed, the shards ground into glittering dust under stiletto heels. 

I think that everyone in the audience was grateful for the knot of cult-followers who came to heckle, call-back, dance and sing along with the show. It was the most devoted and involved display of fandom I have ever seen or heard of. Heckling the cast is almost an obligation – it’s the assigned role of the audience. This strange, sarcastically-tinged relationship between the fans and the institution of Rocky Horror itself stems from an awareness of the show’s lovable absurdity and cheesiness. The story is in many ways an homage to old, kitschy science-fiction/horror films of the 1950’s and earlier, with some ‘60s decadence and ‘70s androgynous punk mixed in for libidinous measure. It’s a cocktail of pop-culture delights, but really can’t be taken too seriously.

There are guidelines to the heckling, to prevent the fans from becoming too insufferable or showing up the cast; for example, every time the name “Brad Majors” is said, you shout “Asshole!” as vehemently as possible. You are also supposed to throw things onstage at certain moments (rice during the wedding scene), but the production I saw sadly did not allow that in the theater. There was an announcement intoned over loudspeakers before the show began that made the rule abundantly clear: “Attention audience members. This not the Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s a movie. So please, don’t throw things at us. … But we’d love it if you’d dance with us.” 

Those who didn’t want abrasive sexual encounters with the cast during intermission could mingle with some of the older fans congregated in small clusters around the lobby. They were reminiscing and glowing in their element, talking about how they’ve been going to see the show and doing the Time Warp since before these Dartmouth actors were in diapers. The movie came out in 1975 after running as a play in England for years, and quickly became an institution of proud freak-dom. It is traditionally shown in theatres at midnight, often accompanied by a shadow-cast (while the film plays, people mimic the action on-screen at the front of the theater). The audience that night was laced with these forever-fans, and their obvious delight fueled the show all the way through. During the Time Warp, there were many excited fans who got up to dance with the fantasies parading around onstage. It becomes clear very quickly that there is no actor-onlooker barrier needed for the Rocky Horror Show to run – as I said, there is no fourth wall. The fourth wall is your indifference; and in an involved and exuberant production such as this, the audience almost merges with the cast. The show is a transformative experience for everyone in the vicinity of its happening. As Frank-N-Furter hypnotically croons in the floor-show finale, “Don’t dream it, be it”.

Fishnets mean freedom; that’s part of the code for fans as well. That night, I saw purple ones, bright-red ones frothing with lace, rose-printed ones, basic black, flesh-colored, tights and knee-highs and thigh-highs. Everyone was dressed to kill, but Frank-N-Furter (David Mavricos) was the most magnificent. A tall, strutting transvestite with huge fluttering eyes, evil red lipsticked-lips and dominatrix knee-high black leather platforms (picture these stomping across stage as he’s holding a roaring chainsaw). In the show, he ends up making it with both Brad and Janet, personifying the delicious downfall for both of them. Frank is the unequivocal symbol of The Rocky Horror Show. It is sinister, voluptuous and fabulous, a campy rock-musical out to bawdlerize old movies and rough up a few virgins in a carnival of perverse pleasure.

As Dartmouth’s director writes in the program: “The Rocky Horror Show is, more than anything, a rock and roll show, and rock and roll is freedom. At Frank’s castle, anything goes, all answers are appropriate, and following your bliss is a requisite activity.” My evening captured this perfectly. Emerging from the theater into reality was a shock that left me speechless, but smiling with what I carried out with me.

Gaga in Nebraska

This is a great little nugget: a local news report from the small town in Nebraska where Lady Gaga filmed her newest music video, "YoΓΌ and I". The video is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and I can't write about it yet because I don't have any particular frenzies of description to impart. All I'll say for now is that it's awesome, blends her Americana ("Telephone", "The Edge of Glory", "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)") and arty Euro-minimalist ("Alejandro", "Bad Romance") aesthetics perfectly, and leaves you exhilarated more than confused.

Most notably, in the video Gaga gets to make out with herself. She cross-dresses as a hot Italian greaseball in a James Dean-style rolled-up white tee; Joe Calderone, her alter-ego. Gaga first appeared as Joe in the September 2010 issue of Japanese Men's Vogue. She says that he's a Sicilian car mechanic -- a perfect cameo part for a song that includes the line, "Muscle cars drove a truck right through my heart"... followed by a rollicking glam-rock guitar wail, of course.

Aug 17, 2011


The bald sax player of Gutbucket has a rope-thick vein popping out on his forehead as he convulses and whirls and launches his torso across the stage in a fiery fit of jazz eloquence. There is a man playing some skeletal thing that used to be an upright bass, with wonderful soulful agony. The guitarist blisters static, the drummer pounds away, and this wonderful anarchy rings crazily in your head like a jungle ska party.

It's sunset, and on the lawn outside the Berkshire Fringe festival there are rows of benches lined up to watch this band explode over and over again onstage. Gutbucket could be described as an art-punk-jazz band from Brooklyn, only the Brooklyn part being indisputably true. The driving force behind this morass of sound is the sax player, giddy with pure invention as he plays. There are squeaks and squeals and yelps from protesting instruments, most of them coming from that single saxophone. During rockabilly-esque, dark, walking-beat sections, he has this wonderful creeping, menacing, predatory stance... a thug with his melodies. Then the music opens back up into absolute frenzy, straddling the line between jazz precision and punk passion. Gutbucket is punk jazz -- the "art-rock" tag really just means that they try to push the boundaries of what their instruments can do, and expect a certain level of patience from their audience when the things really start to hiss and squeal and sing.

There is that awkward, uncertain moment in jazz and rock concerts where one musician is taking a solo, their face contorted with passion and the collective gaze of the audience positively glowing off of them... and the other musicians have to find something to do with themselves while they wait for their turn to play again. While some look at the floor, some dance around a little bit, some nod along with the music & wrinkle their forehead, this particular guitarist whips out his iPhone, crouches on the side of the stage, and starts taking a video. It was so blatantly 21st-century, I couldn't believe it... and I was honestly a little horrified to think that this was considered okay. However, Gutbucket redeemed themselves in the end. During the last song, while the saxophonist was gasping and squealing and lurching around the stage (I think it was meant to be funny -- if not, I am very sorry for cracking up in the thick, stunned silence between notes), in the spasm of a solo, and the guitarist was taking another video, the bald vein-popping sax player stood over him guitarist and lunged at him repeatedly as if the bell of his instrument were a viper-head. It was weird, twisted slapstick brilliance; the guitarist's terrified expression and all.

All songs played during this show were from Gutbucket's newest album, Flock (2011)... available everywhere, including iTunes.

Aug 12, 2011

Our Man (the Gipper!)

On one level, it's an enjoyably absurd play with gunfire patter between two clownish radio announcers in white button-downs. On another level, it's a political analogy that invites further dialogue about the themes. On the level of the absolutely transcendentally absurd, it is a play about the life, death, and legend of a wooden tennis racket. This racket is introduced as "Our man -- the Gipper! But first, some background: our man was raised in the small town of Tempeka, Illinois...", and off we go.

Our Man was brought to the Berkshire Fringe festival by Goat in the Road, a performance company from New Orleans. This two-man show is by Will Bowling and Chris Kaminstein, playing two 1950's-style radio announcers trapped in a 5x5x5 Plexiglass box. The play is about political image, what the back-story of a political figure means and how they are objectified (as a racket? yes! the Gipper!) to be used by the public for whatever they need. While the two announcers are making up a fantastic backstory for the racket, getting breathless on the sensationalistic gossip... they're just creating an absolute rhapsodic opus of bullshit, details details details filling the frame with American sentimentality gilding. Even the most aloof audience knows to laugh at this galloping-paced absurdity.

The character of The Gipper is loosely based on Ronald Reagan, a great political figure in that he effectively utilized modern means of broadcasting his image to the American public. But why use the medium of radio in this play if Reagan appeared primarily on television? As I learned when I talked to Kaminstein, Reagan actually got his start as a 1930's sports announcer on the radio. A radio announcer then would get reels of ticker-tape play-by-play of the game, composed mostly of numbers with a few simple phrases to delineate action; the announcer would fill in the storytelling holes himself. So embellishment was an inherent part of the job, and Reagan acquired a temperament that never wanted facts and accountability to get in the way of a good story.

Kaminstein also explained that the piece is trying to show the process by which we create grand images of public figures, willing to tear them down on any impulse. We will then find someone new, build them up, and tear them down. The surreal, isolated setting of the piece brings out the blatant delusion of this, as the two men are completely fixated on this one powerful, enigmatic, influential, controversial figure who is really just... a racket. The racket has knowledge of its own racketness, while also being endowed with a historical background and implied personality as if it were human. Though this never actually makes the audience feel empathy for the racket, it does allow for some moments of hilarious gravitas... the slow, slow, slow death ooze down the front of the Plexiglass box, all eyes riveted on a falling racket... audience tittering nervously and breaking out in spasms of laughter, unsure why this scene has to last for just as many seconds as it does.

It is tempting to compare the racket's influence to the Bush administration as well, particularly the Florida vote-miscounting scandal at the start of his second term.There is a point where the two men in the box are both trying to run for election (for an inconsequential position, Supervisor of Mail Sorters, when no-one ever sorts the mail anyway). They create too many rules for the voting and twist themselves up in the logistics. There is a moment of self-conscious clarity when one of them says, "Well, I wanted to use one or both of my votes for me, but once again the hand of big government is over-regulating things." Kaminstein said that they definitely had Bush in their minds as inspiration during this, although this particular sequence was not intended to allude to that. However, for a show meant to provoke questions and make connections to politics and behavior in real life, it's still not a useless impression.

Kaminstein says, "My favorite kind of theater, the theater that really inspires me, is when you're plonked down in the middle of an alien world, with an alien language, with one hour -- go." These radio announcers exist in a Beckett-esque purgatory of misinformation and delusion. Their unique brand of precise, rapid physical theater does often feel like something from a surreal alien world. The characters don't actually do any work except make up stories about the life of this racket, go over and over arbitrary rules and "fight" out petty rivalry, and perform peppy shows for an audience that they can't see (not the audience in the theater, the audience assumably listening to the radio broadcast). It's a relationship like that in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in an endless and hopelessly circuitous setting.

Both announcers end up trying to use the racket's image and personality to their own ends, vying for power in this tiny, isolated world. As this goes on, they turn against the racket and use it as a springboard to vent feelings toward each other. They mock it, scream at it, bang it on the floor, grovel to it, and eventually kill it (the slow, slow, slow death ooze...) After his death, of course the Gipper is mythologized and idealized into an even grander figure than he was in "life."

A really fascinatingly silly, hyperactively intelligent piece.

I Am Not Charlotte Simmons: an open letter to Tom Wolfe

Dear Tom Wolfe,

From one American college girl to another, I can tell Charlotte Simmons that she is out of it. Seriously, profoundly, Dorothy-in-Oz out of it. But I felt like I had to meet her. I had to read this monstrously large novel because, Tom, I worship you a little bit; bear with me, don't let that put you off just yet. As someone once said, you do paint with the broadest strokes possible. Your characters are all instantly recognizable as types -- and because these are types that I live with and are part of my generation, I felt that I would be a fair tester of their accuracy. In short, you passed; despite the hyperbolic pageant of characters in this novel (I know you modeled it after Thackeray's Vanity Fair, don't even try to bluster out of it), you have got the precise atmosphere of a big-time prestigious American college pinned down. 

There are a few types that you neglected to mention in this portrait, however. Most notable among these are the hipsters, an epidemic of attitude in the 21st century that almost equals the volume of '60s hippies. I go to a college completely unlike Dupont, a tiny exclusivist college almost entirely composed of geek, stoner, & hipster culture; as a result, I am much more acquainted with the Andrew character type. He's not quite a hipster, but he's close; if he exerted a little more effort in this physical appearance and contrivance, he could be. I can tell you that he, as a type, is... perfect. Pathetic & yearning & intellectually egotistical, completely pretentious, disdainful of those stronger mammals than him who cannot analyze with such dexterity but who have no trouble getting a girl into bed. He is the type that feels like he wants to save quiet bookish girls from their sheltered innocence, tries to dazzle them with random knowledge and powers of discourse... he's so sexually frustrated and repulsive, deserves to be pitied, but also deserves to be educated about these girls he wants to save. I've been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior; it's sweet at first, but also incredibly condescending.

I love your moments of bygone-age wonder, such as the realization that using the explicative "Jesus Christ" announces one as possessing an particularly antiquated burnish of cool, & that "fucking" is now universally recognized as the go-to adjective for familiarity, not only used for instant emphasis but for putting the other person at ease (we're all fucking friends here, right?). But thank God your language is still intact -- you and your "rude animal health", your "starved to near perfection", your medical terminology sparkling on the edge of sex. All these literary techniques still work in the hyped-up arena of 21st-century college life. Human nature is truly timeless, & it takes an excellent reporter to live by that knowledge and make his art out of it.

I followed Charlotte's wavering journey through her freshman year to the end with unflagging interst and attention. One thing, though: is the ending tragic? The inevitable doom of conformity? Has Charlotte been lost in the morass of crude popular culture, or has she been redeemed from her stifled starched small-town sarcophagus? To your eternal credit, you paint with the broadest strokes imaginable but still manage to capture the tint and musk of an atmosphere perfectly -- both the small-town high-school and the big-college microcosm. I am not Charlotte Simmons, being a real college student with complex anxieties and much more culture-savvy (did they really not have any Internet in that little Kansas town? did she really never see any movies? how could she have been so perfectly innocent?)... but somehow, I got to like the girl by the end. I also recognized some uncomfortable truths about people I know and people that comprise my personality from some of the other characters in the novel, proving that hyperbole channels reality more directly than it seems it should. Reading an account of this particular microcosmic world from the perspective of this innocent college-girl prodigy type (and a writer of another generation with an entirely separate perspective) was exhilarating & undeniably fascinating. Resounding thanks.

Sincerely yours,

S. Clelia Sweeney

Aug 10, 2011


A hipster is a non-entity.

You cannot truly be a hipster, you can only look like one and act like one in the hopes of attaining the ideal state of HIPSTERDOM... which is like a state of near-death... the absolute edge of irony hanging over the messy cesspool of passion. A hipster acts as if he/she is above everything and disillusioned about everything society has to offer, even his/her own style; however, that style is maintained meticulously. And also however, a hipster has interests -- they need something to feel superior about, so they cultivate their artistic interests accordingly.

It's not about the clothes they wear, the bands they like, the books they read, the quantity of smoke in their systems... because of course, as per the tyranny of irony, a hipster will only tell you the opposite of the things he/she likes. Their Facebook likes will run something like, "Justin Beiber, Twilight, Bill Cosby, 120 Days of Sodom...", and they will intentionally misspell status updates. The state of hipsterdom (almost indescribable... it's so easy to accuse someone of because it has never really been defined) is about that tension created by emotional distance between themselves and everything else, held with ironic veneer and a sexy dead gaze. It's pop Dada.

In case you can't tell, I don't like hipsters. It really hasn't been defined yet; at least I don't feel like anyone can agree on what exactly constitutes a hipster. Hipsters are so self-effacing and love to fuck with lines of meaning anyway, so I think that the impossibility of a definition ever being established is pretty assured. It is definitely a recognizable aesthetic (a cross between scene & art-geek & sickly bedroom kid), and has become an innate cultural understanding among this generation.

Alright, I've been doing a little more YouTube immersion research (just search "what is a hipster" -- it's a tidal wave). I don't think I'm going to be emerging from the morass anytime soon. I'll leave you with a random comment quote from one of the videos:

"hipsters come in many shapes and forms, but a hipster isn't a hipster if they say they are a's all part of being a hipster hahahaha" -- mybeautifulrescue21 (posted 8 months ago, 64 likes)

Aug 8, 2011

An Alejandro Analysis

(Note: I know it's belated, the Alejandro video came out ages ago, but I wrote this at the time and didn't have anywhere to post it -- now I do.)

Lady Gaga’s most recent video, “Alejandro”, is a flight from her usual fare of Warholian Americana-style pop and into cold Slavic sadomasochism with a touch of Nazi erotica. From what I can glean of the plot, Gaga is the sinister black-lace spider Queen of a post-apocalyptic castle/industrial warehouse where gay Adonii with black bowl-cuts and boots dance for her pleasure. She is icy and distant, but still enthralled with her dancers. She is not only a Queen, but a Madonna: cut from shots of her in a crimson rubber nun’s habit writhing in bed, to her in white underwear and dagger heels being ravaged and rolled by the Adonii on army-style cots, black ropes twisted tight across flawlessly albino bodies. There is conflict and hate, self-hate and plenty of passion in this scene. At the end of the video, the red-rubber Catholic Gaga has her chaste upturned snow-white face seared and distorted in chemical burns and the film dissolves away. As she is petrified with indecision lying on the bed, a motionless guard in black-leather military bondage sits at the foot with a gold-chrome pistol held between his legs.

Now, this is a lot to digest even for a Gaga disciple. At first, the video seems like an extremely fashionable orchestration of images with no central theme except controversy (the Lady boldly tackles sex, death, and the Catholic Church in under nine minutes). However, for all its unsettling vagueries, the video is still coherently Gaga. It is still her brand of immaculate pop, just stone-cold immaculate (more Americana would have been comforting, solidifying her image further, but innovative artists make a point to defy all convention -- even if it is their own). And the video does have a theme, the one that was advertized: Lady Gaga’s relationship with her gay fans. She is their Queen (unconscious wordplay on the gay epithet, maybe? I still can’t pin down exactly how genius Gaga knows she is), she lords over them and watches them worship her, but still cannot connect with them in a physical, human way. They strain against each other, but with trapped, tortured expressions – it is an impossible effort. Not only is she a woman and therefore unwanted by them, she has also made herself into an image and so cannot exist or relate as a simply living, breathing person to anybody. She is GAGA, a god, a savior, their commodity (in another scene, she is tossed from man to man in a brawl-style circle). The symbolism of Lady Gaga as a nun shows forbidden longing. No matter how much she may want one of her bowl-cut gays, the fact remains that he would rather bunk up with Fernando or Roberto than smooth down the shaking snake-white flesh of Queen Gaga. She loathes her own fantasies about the army cots, and yet is obsessed and conflicted by them. In the end, she succumbs and is destroyed.

The perfect ending touch to the video is the sequence of black-and-white flashing shots, with Gaga in beautifully flared and shapely black, strutting down two lines of marching gay militants and snapping her fingers like a 1920's showgirl. It is the floor show from The Rocky Horror Picture Show reincarnate, played to an “empty house in the middle of the night”; in this case, a clean and chic post-apocalyptic wasteland. The marching/dancing performance with gays in uniform is a manifestation of Gaga’s triumph over her conflicted feelings. And, just like in Rocky Horror, the whole thing collapses into an orgy by the end and all will is absolved in pleasure. Though even as Gaga is undulating over one of her splayed white dancers, she’s singing “I’m not your babe, I’m not your babe…” Her giving into pleasure is only a temporary flight into madness. It is all a fantasy. In the end, we see that she is still lying on her bed, racked with indecision forever, a perfect image of a Madonna all wrapped up in skin-tight red rubber with a black rosary clenched in her fingers.

Aug 5, 2011

The Erotics of Doubt

I should have expected it, but I was still impressed -- dancers sure know how to make a salad. I come into their tiny cramped kitchen, and there’s a veritable garden of avocado, arugula, tomato, apple slices, thin sweet dressing & heaps of greenery. This is our version of an after-party at the Berkshire Fringe; there are some clowns there from San Francisco, Jessica Farris of the one-woman show Missing with her incidental cousin, and the dancers from The Erotics of Doubt, all crammed into a mod dorm-room living room & kitchen. With my little bowl of salad, I’m standing in a one-person hallway with three other people, and in gesticulating about how much I love their work I knock a plate of food into the chest of a dancer standing behind me. Later, on the couch, all was forgiven and everyone was talking to each other. I wasn’t taking mental notes, just enjoying myself… as a result, I don’t remember a thing. This was on the night before the dancers left the Fringe festival.
A few hours ago, at the show: “Did you know that bats, termites, and seahorses are the only animals with truly lifelong monogamous relationships?” Two dancers stand on a stark stage, facing the audience. The dancer on the left side, Sarah Konner, iterates this fact calmly. Austin Selden is on the right side of the stage with soft blue eyes that never flinch once. The audience laughs, comfortable.

Cut back to around midnight – now we’re outside on a dark porch, a warm raggedy gathering, moods simmering in warm wine, talking about the amazing moral resilience of bats, termites, and seahorses. I'm standing next to a couple of dancers, conglomerated around the tiny frizzy-haired apex that is Sarah Konner. She says abruptly, with a smile, "It's not true. Completely made up." The fact is, the fact is made up; but it adds a wonderful zing of bestiality to a show about sex more than anything else.

In The Erotics of Doubt, Konner & Selden are out to outline the precious absurdity of human relationships. They are frequent collaborators, though not an actual company, working in this show with a group of other dancers (Catherine Coury, Aidan Feldman, Edith Freyer, Wen Chun Liu, John Pizza, Adam "Fuzzy" Konner, Jordan Risdon, David Schmidt, and Nadia Tykulsker).
They play on tension like an exquisite harp, creating an atmosphere of surrealistic free-associative freedom and potent exploding sexual frustration. There are harsh jagged spasms of movement interspersed with moments of meltingly sweet intimacy. There are high kicks and pointed toes in the mayhem; the ghost of ballet technique sifting through crazy jazz. One particularly wonderful effect, one moment that gives me an adrenaline rush of fear, is when the dancers are patterned out on the floor, flopping & jerking & arching in formation, and they continue these motions for at least ten seconds after stage blackout. The audience is insulated by the environment of heavy breathing and murky commotion, sightless, with no possible defenses. The sound of movement seems to be all around them. There's a touch of Artaud's Theater of Cruelty about it -- a sensibility that comes into play in the final piece (more about that later). The Erotics of Doubt often presses the misplaced sense of security of an audience, whether through disorienting light play or abrupt extreme intimacy.

The images -- character tableaus -- generated in show are often unexpected and always revealing. In Ashamed to Be Balding, a solo piece, Selden emerges as a pathetic, adorable character holding a small box and asking the audience if his tie is on straight. This man is seen crouched on the toilet, eating slips of paper gleefully, leaping around & flinging sheet-music around; but the most sublimely silly moment is when he approaches a tall, thin lamp with burning intense eyes, and begins to... seduce it. He grinds and thrusts towards it, grinning crazily, holding it by the neck and stomping like a fevered savage. The whole piece is a romp through his demons and fantasy worlds, in the sanctuary of his own bathroom. At one still point, he steps into the toilet bowl, turns to look at the lamp, and says, "My socks keep getting wetter! Every time!"... and it's weirdly tragic! The absurdity of it is endearing. His verbal delivery and facial expressions are amazingly, exactly identical every night (I saw the show four times). He has sweat dripping in beads from the nose, his breath is ragged, and he loves it.

John & David have a two-character duet of romping physical intimacy that cements the show together. They appear periodically, between pieces, alone onstage together. They explore each other’s physical limits by wrestling, dancing, tumbling over one another, pulling toes, tearing off clothes. They spar and have lovers’ repartee. In the final performance, they were tangled on the ground and John tried to put his mouth over David’s head. They were both red-faced, the audience was laughing. On some nights, it was more shock and gravitas – some nights were more purely exuberant and delightful. The freedom of improvisation makes it one of the more light-hearted pieces in the show.

Chateau de Silling is a decadent deadly battering ram to the senses, a hothouse of Sodom sex & death, power, rape, manipulation, the final full piece in the show (choreographed by Austin Selden, starring Sarah Konner). It begins as a dancer in red satin strides in majestically, the very picture of power, her fingers stretched out toward the ground being sucked by a gaggle of cowed victims crawling after her. Giovanni Martinelli's "Giovinezza" roars out over the crowd and glints in her eyes as she strides slowly forward with her slurping minions following behind. The red satin dictator elects one of her minions with an application of red lipstick to chase the others around the space, grabbing them and planting gnawing kisses on their necks. As the piece progresses, one pair of dancers ends up in the corner; one knock-kneed & lying the ground, the other straddling her and slowly but surely insinuating rape. There is a tall male dancer with rubber limbs slithering and jerking along the back wall, simpering at his own reflection in a hand-mirror. The red satin dictator luxuriates in sheet after sheet of her cascading black hair in the spotlight. It is an absolutely eerie presentation of scattered episodes of perversity, decadence, sadistic love. 

After this plays out for a while, Sarah Konner enters in a bunched-up white dress, tight lace around her torso, holding a bare-bulbed lamp aloft – the Good Witch. The denizens of the dark scatter from the light like roaches, listening her as she hypnotizes the audience with a slow, politely and perfectly enunciated monologue. She strokes the rape victim up from the floor, pulls her into a jilted waltz, stops suddenly and says, “But my dear little cabbage, mon petit chou, you’ll soon lie ravaged in the morning dew” … and then begins to DANCE, like an epileptic ballerina, whirling all around the terrified scrabbling roaches, voracious for sweat, wiping her hands panting on the pulp of her own lips. She falls on the floor in a series of seizures, her bubbling white ruffle skirt bursting on the floor. It was her last line that made me realize that they were really re-creating the Marquis de Sade’s Sodom: “The Duke is coming… all over your back.”

Curiously, they don’t then all fall on each other in an orgy. There’s so much fear and power-manipulation along with sexual excitement that each dancer fairly explodes when a soppy easy-listening swing fills the space… and there is more ensuing chaos, flailing bodies hurling themselves over & over onto the floor, but each is alone. They are moving to the sound of the music, the thuds, the scraping and heavy breathing. The Good Witch stops in the middle by the light and looks around, gasping & admiring the chaos she has created. They follow her in heaving clusters on the floor, out the door, led by the white light.
The closing image of the show is John & David, holding each other closely and swaying in center-stage to the aftermath schmaltzy droppings of the previous piece's soundtrack. Somehow, after this intricate architecture of human relationships has fallen away and we are left with one closing image of a simple, sincere embrace… it’s heartbreakingly perfect.

I'll admit something -- this show makes me feel hugely lonely. It's true that The Erotics of Doubt is about sex more than anything... which might explain why it's at once so entrancing and so hard to reconcile with. But it nags at my subconscious. I'm not sure if I have still fully processed it. Before the dancers left, I couldn't really do more than thank them for their performance. I was even lonelier in silence. Maybe this feeling of loneliness is just the old loneliness of an audience member, trapped in dark anonymity in the face of something so wonderfully alive; physically longing for a state of bare honesty mixed with what seems to be total physical freedom.

Aug 4, 2011

A Unique Opportunity

I am currently spending a chunk of my summer before sophomore year of college interning at the Berkshire Fringe Festival, a theater & dance & music extravaganza that spans four weeks. In spending all my time doing whatever the directors tell me to, I don't have a lot of free time to write; however, I am determined to get out at least a few pieces about the shows because this insider's-view vantage point is just too good to pass up. Plus, because the shows are free for those involved in the production, I can see them up to four or five times each.

I will try to resist using this as an online journal or gabbing on too much about my process, making excuses for myself just to fill dead Internet space, blah blah blah. I started this blog yesterday on an anxious split-second whim (the way I always start blogs, wracked with uncertainty) not only because of the Berkshire Fringe, but because I need a place to post some journalism pieces that I am working on for my own personal joy. That's all.

And finally, here is where the title came from:

"It was a strange time for me. Many rogue volts of euphoria. I went from one side of this country to the other and then from one side of England to the other. The people I met -- the things they did -- I was entranced. I met Carol Doda. She blew up her breasts with emulsified silicone, the main ingredient in Silly Putty, and became the greatest resource of the San Francisco tourist industry." 
       -- Tom Wolfe, introduction to The Pump House Gang