Say what you will about John Kelly’s The Escape Artist, a play with songs at P.S.122. Chances are he’ll take it lying down. A polymath whose skills include painting, gender illusion, tightrope walking, and songwriting, Kelly spends most of his current effort prone on a large table, his face hovering over his splayed body on a trinity of video screens.
In the first minutes of the show, Kelly stands, dressed all in white, his skin pallid, and narrates a tale of a recent passion for the paintings of the proto-baroque Italian artist Caravaggio and his progress on a piece inspired by him. In one song, he compares himself to the painter: “I aim to seduce/I choose to offend,” he sings. “I live to give form/And I long to lose control.” But while rehearsing a trapeze sequence meant to feature in the finale, Kelly says that he fell and landed on his neck. He spends the rest of the play horizontal, nearly immobile.
It’s a gorgeous opening gambit, situated in some unstable place between the confessional and the fictional, the actor and the character. It makes you forgive the structural sameness of what comes after: brief monologues rhythmically interspersed with evanescent, breathy songs (many of them written with Carol Lipnik), all of them engaging, but too many of them tonally similar. As Kelly speaks and sings, images flicker above him, many of them re-creations of Caravaggio’s canvases, somewhat in the manner of Cindy Sherman reconstructions, though less grotesque than hers.
As in previous works, Kelly seems fully present in the piece, while also remaining distant and opaque. While the show couldn’t be more revealing—a video sequence includes a proctology exam—he still appears at a slight, enticing distance. The man he plays, trapped in a hospital bed, cinched in a neck brace, can’t move at all, but Kelly somehow manages to always elude our grasp.