Theater archives

John Kelly Channels Painter Egon Schiele As He Breathes, Ducks, and Dies Through Art


I doubt that Egon Schiele, the Viennese Expressionist painter, could dance—beyond, perhaps, a clumsy waltz. Nor was he much of a singer. At least—unlike the brilliant theater artist John Kelly in his portrait of Schiele, Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte—he 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 Boito’s opera Mefistofele after she has thrown her infant into the sea.

Yet, through carefully re-created and layered incidents in Schiele’s life, plus fantasy-infused images like these to suggest the artist’s visions, Kelly uncannily—and without speaking a word—impersonates 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 Kelly’s 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.

Kelly first tackled Schiele as a subject 28 years ago in a short performance at the Lower East Side’s Pyramid Club (when he, Kelly, was 29). The coincidence in terms of dates may have induced the director-choreographer-performer to yield to Ellen Stewart’s 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.

Kelly’s impersonation is remarkable. Black circles traced around his eyes give him the illusion of the wild gaze that stares out of Schiele’s portraits. His hair stands up stiffly. He wears a black suit that emphasizes his skinniness. But this is a Schiele in motion—his 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 films—maybe of Buster Keaton, but more often of a puppet, manipulated by his own passions.

Perhaps Schiele himself thought about puppets. (Coincidentally, Edward Gordon Craig’s 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 painter’s arms is stuck out to the side, dangling from the elbow, while his other arm wraps tightly behind and around him; in others, the painter’s 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 Schiele’s 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 Wally’s 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 other’s ears that—judging by their shocked expressions or silent guffaws—shouldn’t 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 out—impudently erect—before he spits it on the floor.

Kelly has invented many imaginative ways of bringing Schiele’s process to life, even down to such details as having Canale—preparing doubtfully to pose—strip to a green chemise, white pantalets, and black stockings (costume design by James Reilly) that duplicate the model’s attire in one of Schiele’s paintings. Anthony Chase’s 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 Schiele’s 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 Schiele’s cloistered world. I also initially queried Kelly’s references to Giselle—using Adolphe Adam’s famous score and approximating the heroine’s steps (including her dizzying hopped turns when she’s first awakened from death into a deadly afterlife). But this may be an allusion both to the artist’s 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 Schiele’s 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 Schiele—alone, nearing her term, and knitting baby clothes—seems to be worrying about her husband’s 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.