The Unimportance of Being Earnest
In the 11 years since the NEA Four were defunded, performance artists have shown a decided aversion to explicit sex and politics. The generation of performers that emerged in the '90s were mostly offbeat actors with personal stories to tell (Lisa Kron), original characters to channel (Sarah Jones), or pop culture to recontextualize (Mike Albo). The paradigm shift didn't come just because everyone was worried about the government, eitherthe fact was, you couldn't get much more outrageous than wedging yams into your butt and howling obscenities. Even Karen Finley knew that, or she'd still be doing it.
The fabulous duo Olson and Wooster, unafraid to risk dismissal by calling themselves "club kids," are ambitious and silly enough to attempt to reconcile the mean, lean performance art of the '80s with the cleaned-up '90s version. Their show at Dixon Place, Go-Go Reál, doesn't quite make it clear which camp they belong to more, but it is certainly a campy camp. Brandon Olson spends the entire preset on a floor that's smeared with red glitter, mummified in a swath of spangled cloth. The boys are both rail-thin and attractive, Jonathan Wooster a wry Brit and Olson a skinny version of Brendan Fraser.
The knowing naïveté of their free-associative routines brings Dancenoise to mind. Wooster spits a lackadaisical rap while Olson writhes in the glitter. Ripping off an old perfume commercial, they craft a super-vague narrative about a demimondaine named Charlie, who loses his/her innocence to the New York club scene. It's hard to imagine whose innocence would remain intact after working at what appears to be a combination strip club and poultry slaughterhouse. But if you're the type who finds pleasure in the sordid, the lower the slide starts, the betterit can only drop even further down. Olson and Wooster's descent into hell takes some predictable gay urban tropes and mutilates them, in particular a poem Wooster recites about a sexual attraction to the Incredible Hulk, which ultimately fuses with an equine coprophagia fantasy. Another of their routines plays on multiple meanings of the word positive, as it applies to both HIV and self-help culture. "I'm positive," say the boys, trading words. "At least I think I'm positive. Everyone's always telling me how positive I am"until they spew out a math lesson about adding and multiplying positives and negatives, among other explorations. It's the duo's adolescent willingness to go too far, be it into obscurity or graphic sex, that gives Go-Go Reál its charm. You really feel you've been invited into the basement of a pair of polymorphously perverse best friends who have a lot of inside jokes to share. But when they get naked, they perform a dimly lit pas de deux that's shocking for its intimacyand because they're getting glitter up their butts.
Jean Cocteau's 1925 play Orphée is a spectacle requiring multiple descents into hell and a handful of glitter up its butt in order to work. A neo-surrealist take on Greek mythology and theater, the piece demands that everyone involved be a master at sleight of hand. The set designer has to make a glazier fly, poets walk through mirrors, and decapitated heads speak. Orphée and Eurydice must convey a genuine sense of devotion despite their marriage of convenience. One actor plays a horse. Not even the translator can slack off, since one of the major plot points hinges on a French acrostic. It's a magical farce that keeps viewers aware of its components and breaks the fourth wall a few times for good measure.
Set designer Sky Lanigan puts us in a working-class Thracian villa, a delightfully cheap set that looks like a shower stall at the Y. Director Judson Kniffen's vision of Orphée and Eurydice has a touch of Stanley and Stella in it. As the poet, Ben Schneider wears a personalized jumpsuit and speaks as if he's just come from Bensonhurst, as Valerie Stanford's Eurydice sports a chartreuse hoopskirt and a wig that comes loose as she moves from pose to iconic pose. Obsessed with a horse that stomps out messages, the narcissistic poet Orphée neglects his wife (in this play a former Bacchante), who breaks a window every day so the glazier will come up and spend time with her. Eurydice accidentally licks a poisoned envelope from the Bacchantes addressed to Orphée. In walks Death in her jodhpurs and cap, played by the strikingly beautiful Nigerian Okwui Okpokwasilithe production's one stroke of casting genius. Death takes Eurydice, and Orphée must to go to the netherworld (through the mirror) to retrieve her. By the play's close, everyone winds up doing lunch in Hades.
Director Kniffen (who also plays Heurtebise) and his actors have seized the play's comedic side a bit too broadly, but their post-vaudeville, Adobe Theater-ish approach makes enough sense that it doesn't ruin the play, even if some of its subtlety gets lost. They seem too young to take Orphée's morbid undercurrents seriously; they'd rather just bask in the play's abundant absurdity. For them, hell really is just a cool place to have lunch.
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