Performance Anxieties


Forget shocking. Nearly a decade after Tim Miller fought the feds as one of the NEA Four, it’s getting hard for performance artists even to be original. This week downtown, you can have your activist confessional monologue, your racially driven parody, or your slapstick routine sprinkled with gender politics. Add a flash of nudity—full frontal or demure derriere—and there you are: performance art 1999.

Miller’s autobiographical narrative Glory Box (P.S. 122) bubbles over with sweetness and righteousness. A wooden trunk—representing his mother’s hope chest, called a glory box in Australia—is a metaphor for the artist’s stored humiliations and aspirations as a gay man. Climbing into it naked—as he did when he was five—he revisits the rude awakenings of his childhood while recounting his current living nightmare: His Australian “husband” Alistair might be deported by a U.S. government that does not recognize same-sex marriage.

What’s really in the trunk is a naked lobbyist, dedicated to spotlighting the plight of binational gay couples and agitating for new laws. Miller is savvy enough to claim some ironic distance from his platform—”It is critical not to put the political rant first,” he jokes—but you still feel lectured at. Pick up a petition on the way out, he urges—seriously.

Still, Miller’s account of his new love has charm. Describing Alistair’s panic shortly before confronting customs, he discovers the “underrated” joy of the “melancholic, almost Chekhovian, recumbent soft dick.” He does an amusing bit on “practicing” to say “I love you,” first to his sweetie’s photo, then to the man himself—but only when Alistair’s washing dishes with the water running.

Michael Martin doesn’t get naked in Quentin T Do Amateur Night at de Apollo (Kraine Theater). Instead, he appears as Quentin Tarantino in whiteface, a red pimp-suit, and a cascade of dreadlocks. The movie director is appearing at the Apollo to enlist the support of black folks. While patronizing the crowd, he is meant to reveal his virulent racism. This risky gambit might have worked as a 15-minute skit. Instead, Martin drags us through nearly two hours of what sounds like a limp Jay Leno intro—a litany of toothless jokes about Hollywood celebs and famous black men. Often we forget he’s supposed to be Tarantino. Worse, Martin creates no sense of an audience reacting, growing restive or hostile. He’s alone on a bare stage flailing, and it’s no laughing matter.

While Martin elects to perform without props, The Buddy Performance (Here), by William Pope.L and Jim Calder, is entirely about found objects. Subtitled Two Cowboy Gynecologists in Search of the Male Grail, the act is put together with such ingredients as cardboard cylinders, duct tape, the Grail myth, cowboy music, surgical gear, and plywood tables.

The pretense of a plot—two ruined gynecologists (and failed family men) locked away from the world to do gender research—is an excuse for a succession of shenanigans best described as the Three Stooges meet Stomp. The duo dance an African-inspired soft-shoe while twirling their tables. They create wacky effects with inflated rubber gloves. They warble an operatic country-western Parsifal to twanging guitars and saw (kudos to the witty music of gui-tarist George Griggs and bassist Justin Lander). Finally, they strip naked and expertly wind duct tape to create “shorts” for their bare butts.

Some of this loonyness is amusing, some is boring. Mostly these comics are likable, and their inventive use of materials makes you smile. Besides, when you picture them tearing that tape off their privates, well . . . no one can say they’re unwilling to suffer for their art.