Remembering David Wojnarowicz
By bearing passionate witness to his own cruelly abridged life, David Wojnarowicz catapulted himself from the invisible queer margins to the center of the art world. Though his career is inextricably bound up with the early years of the AIDS epidemic (he died from the disease in 1992), his literary and visual collages continue to howl with the urgency of their political message. He did not (luckily for us) go gently into the abysmal night. The more Jesse Helms and his homophobic kind tried to gag him, the louder his rage thundered. His work—much of it created in reaction to the governmental oppression and censorship that was literally killing him and his friends—demonstrates the way an artist can paradoxically transcend his historical moment by remaining viscerally faithful to it. Of course for Wojnarowicz, creativity was always inseparable from the joys and terrors of the body.
Truemyth (Blue Heron Studio Theater), a new performance piece written and directed by Christopher Eaves, pays homage to Wojnarowicz’s career by theatricalizing his cubist-like and totally unsparing memoirs. The stage is converted into a kind of multimedia installation space, where video footage presents a largely urban impressionistic backdrop. Signature images from Wojnarowicz’s work are given three-dimensional reality—a man costumed as the globe with wings sits perched on a peripheral ledge, face masks from the “Rimbaud in New York” series appear intermittently, a giant lizard crawls forbiddingly into view. An ensemble of three men and two women embody different aspects of the artist’s story, from his abusive childhood in New Jersey, through his Port Authority hustling days, to the aesthetic activism that both consumed and strengthened him.
Like any memorable life, Wojnarowicz’s was as allegorical as it was shockingly individualistic. His early existence was steeped in shame; his genius was to recognize (slowly, painfully) that the real culprit was not himself but society. The heroic journey of consciousness raised the tragic stakes, but also left a redemptive legacy. Does any of this come across in Eaves’s extremely well-intentioned production? A bit, but nothing that compares with standing before Wojnarowicz’s own silkscreen tribute to the body of his dying lover or his playful photo of Helms as a scorpionlike creature tattooed with a swastika—both of which are featured in the exhibition accompanying the show.
Awkwardly conceived as a movement theater piece, Truemyth tries to generate an antic pace through choreography that includes much running and hopping in place. The hashed-together text underscores the problem of the staging—there’s something too willful about Eaves’s search for an experimental form. Still, it’s heartening to see a young ensemble engage Wojnarowicz’s courageous sensibility. At a time when the discussion of AIDS has been muted by the uncertain hope of new drugs and the daunting dilemma of Africa, it’s instructive to be reminded that an eloquent scream is still our most powerful defense. —Charles McNulty
“The American Living Room,” Here’s summer directing cabaret, is known for putting couches on its risers. But a recent double bill brought The Couch to the stage in a pair of unusual and engaging performance pieces about self-help—Elisa DeCarlo’s Toasted and Lisa Levy’s Psychotherapy as Performance Art. The former is a great memoir told well by an unskilled actress, the latter a breezy improv by a sassy New York chick who wants to analyze random strangers.
Self-described as a “fat, disgruntled alternative comic,” DeCarlo has a lack of charisma that can be both refreshing and fatal. This, she explains in Toasted, is why she drinks, and why she joins a self-help group called Moderation Management, an organization for people concerned about their drinking but who don’t want to give it up entirely. Unsatisfied with the live meetings, she gets hooked on the e-mail list, where she rises to “list mommy” among a group of 200, many of whom post while sloshed. During a particularly bad binge, a list member named Larry confesses online to his daughter’s murder, and the now familiar ethical dilemmas of such supposedly confidential sharing circles arise. E-mails flash back and forth. Is Larry exaggerating? If not, should the crime be reported? As many in film have discovered, e-mail is inherently undramatic. DeCarlo’s writing, however, does a good job of bringing the electronic transmissions to life as a story, even though she often undercuts its effectiveness with cornball schtick. It turns out that DeCarlo has already exploited this material for New York magazine and received national press for the story. Despite the tale’s chilling payoffs—DeCarlo blows the whistle, the e-mail list ostracizes her, Larry was molesting the daughter he immolated—DeCarlo leaves all the moral ambiguities intact.
Levy’s Psychotherapy as Performance Art takes place in its own virtual reality. In therapy herself, Levy has doctored her university diploma to read “clinical psychologist” and given herself an award as “credentials.” She keeps Psychology Made Easy handy when she invites audience members to her couch. With a 13-minute time limit and a little background info, Levy attempts to solve one of their conflicts. Working her no-nonsense attitude, flat New York accent, and frizzy red mane, Levy could run her own TV talk show. Though amusing and weird—one patient was an aspiring psychotherapist—Levy’s only new spin on analysis is that she gives away nude pictures of herself to participants as prizes, which might mean she needs to spend more time on the couch herself. —James Hannaham