John Kelly Channels Painter Egon Schiele As He Breathes, Ducks, and Dies Through Art
I doubt that Egon Schiele, the Viennese Expressionist painter, could dancebeyond, perhaps, a clumsy waltz. Nor was he much of a singer. At leastunlike the brilliant theater artist John Kelly in his portrait of Schiele, Pass the Blutwurst, Bittehe would not have attempted the airy jumps with which Giselle expresses her metamorphosis into a Wili in the second-act spirit world of the 1841 ballet. Nor can you imagine Schiele singing, in a soft, faltering, emotion-laden countertenor, the aria delivered by the maddened Margherita in Boitos opera Mefistofele after she has thrown her infant into the sea.
Yet, through carefully re-created and layered incidents in Schieles life, plus fantasy-infused images like these to suggest the artists visions, Kelly uncannilyand without speaking a wordimpersonates his subject. That subject was frequently his own subject; Schiele painted a multitude of disturbing self-portraits over the course of his very short life.
The large signs carried on at the outset of Kellys theater piece by two dapper and nimble dancers (Eric Jackson Bradley and Luke Murphy), billed as Alter Egon 1 and Alter Egon 2, give us the facts. In 1910, Schiele is born. As a young man, he meets Wally Neuzil, who becomes his model and his mistress. He is briefly imprisoned for painting images considered pornographic. In 1916, he marries Edith Harms. In 1918, he and both women perish in the influenza pandemic, Edith carrying his child. He dies, famous, at 28.
Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte
By John Kelly
Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa
66 East 4th Street
December 2 through 19
Kelly first tackled Schiele as a subject 28 years ago in a short performance at the Lower East Sides Pyramid Club (when he, Kelly, was 29). The coincidence in terms of dates may have induced the director-choreographer-performer to yield to Ellen Stewarts pleas over the years and revive the piece (which had been shown in expanded versions at Dance Theater Workshop in 1986 and La MaMa in 1995) in 2010.
Kellys impersonation is remarkable. Black circles traced around his eyes give him the illusion of the wild gaze that stares out of Schieles portraits. His hair stands up stiffly. He wears a black suit that emphasizes his skinniness. But this is a Schiele in motionhis strangely joined and spread fingers attempting to clasp his hands together, his pursed-up mouth spreading into a shy smile or opening in a silent, lustful growl, his head tilting oddly in different directions. He moves stiffly, shyly at times. You think of silent filmsmaybe of Buster Keaton, but more often of a puppet, manipulated by his own passions.
Perhaps Schiele himself thought about puppets. (Coincidentally, Edward Gordon Craigs essay On the Actor and the Über-Marionette was written around the time of his birth.) In a self-portrait that Kelly re-creates and plays upon, one of the painters arms is stuck out to the side, dangling from the elbow, while his other arm wraps tightly behind and around him; in others, the painters sinewy body is curiously twisted. Kelly can also, at times, move like a maniacal automaton.
In one delicious scene, his power as a mime brings to imaginative life Schieles meeting with the 17-year-old Wally (Tymberly Canale) in a café (chairs and table designed in Secessionist style by the late Huck Snyder). He sees her from the street, walks in, sits down, and starts to make conversation. Before he arrives, the terrific Canale has established Wallys character for us; acquired mannerliness masks a lusty nature. She drains her beer mug in one gulp, but stifles a genteel burp. She flirts subtly with the very air around her. The gestures and facial expressions of the two performers provide bits of information (he shows her a paintbrush, she conveys a pleased You want to paint me?). But Kelly also reveals much by having them whisper things in each others ears thatjudging by their shocked expressions or silent guffawsshouldnt be spoken aloud in a café. At one point, she mischievously stuffs the sausage that Schiele, a non meat-eater, has refused, into his mouth, where it sticks outimpudently erectbefore he spits it on the floor.
Kelly has invented many imaginative ways of bringing Schieles process to life, even down to such details as having Canalepreparing doubtfully to posestrip to a green chemise, white pantalets, and black stockings (costume design by James Reilly) that duplicate the models attire in one of Schieles paintings. Anthony Chases film sequences produce provocative insights in grainy black and white that recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Kelly, in close-up, draws a face on a sheet of glass between him and the camera and then, eerily, fits his face into and out of the outline. A startling bit of theatrical sleight of hand has the artist attacking what appears to be a very large blank canvas, in order to depict his pregnant wife (Mackenzie Meehan), whom he has carefully posed. Kelly draws a black line to edge her skirt; no big deal. Then her delicate face magically emerges in full color, and you realize that Kelly is using a rag, not a brush, and that, instead of painting on a blank surface, he is wiping away the white substance that masks a Schiele reproduction (you can hear small gasps around the theater). The scene calls to mind the notion that a sculptor simply pares away excess to reveal the subject dwelling in the marble.
The two Alter Egons perform small roles and act as stage managers, wheeling or carrying objects around. When the painter throws himself onto his new wife, they pull the couple offstage on the red cloth that serves as a bridal bed. Most importantly, they team up with Kelly, arm-in-arm or pasted together spoon-fashion, to expand on Schieles life in small movement sequences. While his mistress negotiates with him for a continued relationship, the two men join Meehan to form a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil tableau. They dance expansively too, and I wonder a little about this. Even used minimally and in passing, an arabesque conveys something outside Schieles cloistered world. I also initially queried Kellys references to Giselleusing Adolphe Adams famous score and approximating the heroines steps (including her dizzying hopped turns when shes first awakened from death into a deadly afterlife). But this may be an allusion both to the artists demonic possession by his work and to art that exists after death.
Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte is stunning at almost every moment (I might except the long sequence of hard-to-decipher, posed slides of Kelly that indicate Schieles debilitating time in prison, as well as images here and there that seem too obvious, like the cloaked specter of death that wanders out of a barrage of smoke). In wonderfully artful ways, Kelly balances crudeness, delicacy, and tenderness. In one lovely vignette, while Edith Schielealone, nearing her term, and knitting baby clothesseems to be worrying about her husbands absence, one of his surrogates (Murphy) is in fact beside her, kneeling to hold up the skein of yarn that she is winding into a ball. Twice the ball slips from her hands, unrolling like her soon-to-end life.
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