His eyes bug out, the veins in his neck tense into snaky lines, his voice plunges into a sonorous depth: Paul Zaloom is trying to scare us. And who wouldn’t be terrified when a performance artist announces at the beginning of a piece that he’s going to recount, in full detail, a 10-and-a-half-hour dream he recently had? The joke’s on us, of course: It takes Zaloom only 75 minutes to get to the heart of our truly deep fears. In Velvetville, his latest quick-paced, junk-strewn assemblage of associative vignettes, Zaloom rides out earthquakes, police aggression, a plane crash, sadistic dentistry, and an L.A. singles bar. He trudges through toxic landfills, traffic-jam fumes, the Gap-ification of every street corner, and ethnic warfare. Finally, he lands in Hell, where he’s greeted, and eternally harangued, by what he introduces, in a chirpy voice of welcome, as “the Flamenco styling of Esperanto and Debbie!” Yet hell soon becomes, well, more hellish: It plays host to the Republican convention of 2000.
One need not abandon all hope when journeying with Zaloom into his postmod purgatory, where, above all, the Western world is called upon to expiate their sins of environmental destruction and wanton waste. The wit and wacky whimsy of Zaloom’s found-object puppetry sustains one’s faith in the power of human imagination and childlike wonder. And in the snarky sting of satire.
Zaloom’s genius is to animate the detritus of diurnal life into the forces and figures of cosmic and political drama. He waves around a plastic shower curtain decorated with garish flowers, lays it over a table, and—voilà!—spring in Vermont. A stack of cardboard egg cartons teeters as an overcrowded L.A. condo straddling a faultline. A hunk of bubble wrap unfurls as a frozen New England river whose ice cracks as Zaloom pops the air pockets. A quilted box for chocolate-covered cherry baci? A top-of-the-line coffin, of course. In Zaloom’s lampooning landscape, Rudy Giuliani is a squeegee, and Trent Lott a douche bag. As for portraying himself, Zaloom bounces a squeaking rubber rat across his table-top stage.
Zooming from one nutty notion to another, Zaloom switches location and time frame as quickly and casually as you can toss a gum wrapper onto the pavement. Part of the pleasure of the ride is seeing his mind get captured by a castaway object and fill it immediately with life and import. Often, as soon as you stop to wonder how apt a particular animation might be, he’s already three beats ahead. No chance to parse the suggestion that the Pope attends the Republican convention and tries on Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress (itself an honorary Republican, Zaloom remarks). Boris Yeltsin has just arrived in the form of a pink balloon, and George W. Bush—a noose—clomps across the table bragging that he is the highest-grossing governor of the century because he has presided over more executions than anyone. No time to stop laughing and truly contemplate Zaloom’s question about why the pad thai he ordered in for supper came with 14 plastic forks and “enough napkins to mop up the Exxon Valdez“; he’s already got a toilet-seat cover around his neck and a new rant about squandered resources.
The tabletop is just one of three rings in Zaloom’s low-tech circus, ably directed by Randee Trabitz. Center stage, Zaloom sits from time to time at an overhead projector, making shadow puppetry that is all the more magical for its bargain-basement creativity. Funniest—and most disturbing—is his depiction of a full facial makeover at the hands of a demented plastic surgeon. The screen shows a cartoon outline of a goofy guy’s profile, which Zaloom manipulates into absurd new shapes by pulling on its elastic edges. In a brutal shove, the convex nose turns concave; tugging on both ends of the round head, Zaloom yanks it into fashionable, if untenable, thinness.
In the third area of the stage, Zaloom stands before an easel with a series of velvet paintings (perfectly kitsch achievements by Gregg Gibbs), nattering about the cheesy appeal of their falsely comforting images. The nature scene of leaping fish turns out to be an ooze of pollution; the big-eyed waif begging for a handout to help feed her “puddy cat” is shoved aside as Zaloom rushes into a Broadway musical about, yep, a big-eyed waif singing out her plea for help in feeding her puddy cat.
Velvetville, Zaloom’s first New York performance in five years, is less politically pointed than his earlier pieces. I miss the kind of segment in such works as The House of Horror and My Civilization where he revealed found documents (usually from the government) as the most absurd and scary narratives of all: some peddled products for detecting toxins in the home, others offered industrial recipes for the chemical enhancement of food flavors. Still, in a terror-filled hilarity that only Zaloom can conjure, Velvetville stirs our best fantasies to explore our worst ones.