Friday, December 17, 2010

In Brief, Take 2

An interesting phone call the other day from the Vancouver Playhouse. A volunteer was following up on our attendance at Brief Encounter, no doubt wanting us to spread the word about its manifold charms to other potential audience members. When I told her we left at intermission there was a pause, a curt thank you, and then a click. Guess we won't be hearing back from them again soon--although I am going to be giving the company one more chance this season with Melissa Gibson's This in January. I read the New York Times rave when it played Off-Broadway; and this production will star Megan Follows, who bowled me over in an otherwise hit-and-miss revival of Cloud Nine in Toronto last February.

Speaking of phone calls from performing arts organizations, kudos to Ballet BC for their alacritous and gracious stewardship etiquette in response to a recent donation I made. I had phoned up their box office to place an order for two mini-pack subscriptions to the remainder of the season after receiving an email in my inbox about this short term offer. This deal is a very smart marketing move on the part of Artistic Director Emily Molnar and Executive Director Jay Rankin, as it allows them to capitalize on the success of their season-opening November program (which I had to miss) as well as the added Christmas cross-marketing of their Nutcracker offering. Equally smart is having box office staff (I was served by the most capable Ashley) ask you at the time of purchase whether you would also like to make a tax-deductible donation to the company. As I'm learning more and more at PuSh, nine times out of ten all you have to do to get people to give to something they believe in is ask. Such was the case with me, and I appreciated the follow-up phone call the next day from Development Manager Roger Kayo thanking me for my donation.

On the subject of arts funding, I note that George Abbott is alone among the declared candidates to replace Gordon Campbell as Liberal Party leader and Premier of the province in vowing to restore gaming and other monies to 2008-9 levels. Chump change should, as most expect, that harridan from talk radio, Christy Clark, win the contest. Even more depressing are the latest poll numbers, which indicate the Liberals, with Campbell on the way out, have now overtaken the Carole James-less NDP in voter popularity. Et tu, Jenny Kwan?

Other things of mildly vexatious interest: Mayor Gregor Robertson can't get through to 911 to report gang shootings in his neighbourhood, but he and his Vision-dominated Council can steamroll through, against overwhelming citizen opposition, a travesty of a plan to "re-green" Hastings Park. How expanding the PNE and Playland fits into such a mandate is beyond me.

Meanwhile VAG chief Kathleen Bartels and the City continue to be miles apart on a potential deal to find a new downtown site for the gallery. Heather Deal is quoted in the Georgia Straight as saying that the main post office depot at Georgia and Hamilton is likely to close soon, suggesting that as a possible alternate site to Larwell Park, which Bartels and the VAG Board covet. Hell, yes!! It's a wonderful, vast modernist building, perfectly situated across from the Queen E and the Playhouse, with no doubt heaps of underground storage space, and square footage up the whazoo for the right architect to go crazy with. But Ms. Bartels doesn't seem interested, confirming that she wants a new signature building to cement her legacy as Director rather than finding the right solution to showcase the collection.

Finally, I was amused by the recent report from Canada's Officer of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, criticizing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics for their inadequate use of French. Well, duh! Anyone watching on TV could have figured that out. Did we really need a months-long, and no doubt expensive, report to tell us what we already know? I mean the ceremonies themselves were overseen by an Australian; and VANOC CEO John Furlong is a unilingual Irishman. Furlong, by the way, dismissed the report, noting that 40 odd complaints from peeved Francophones couldn't compare with the thousands upon thousands of congratulations VANOC received on the ceremonies. What nobody seems to realize in all of this is how outdated is the notion of linguistic nationalism. It's been a tenuous reason for holding the country together at the best of times, and in our polyglot 21st-century, transnational world, it just not signify at all.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Queer Performance Art Redux, or, It's 1990 All Over Again

A somewhat churlish (but mostly positive) review of Tim Miller's most recent solo show, Lay of the Land, in the New York Times this past Thursday ("Is anyone a performance artist anymore?" is how it begins), coupled with a reference in the same review to Miller's shout out to fellow queer performance artist and NEA Four cultural blacklisting victim Holly Hughes (whose new show, Let Them Eat Cake, is currently running at Dixon Place), and the growing brouhaha over the removal--at the urging of Catholic League President William Donohue--of the David Wojnarowicz video "A Fire in My Belly" from the National Portrait Gallery show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in Washington, DC (see Holland Carter's article in the New York Times on the scandal), not to mention the failure of Obama's attempts to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," has got me thinking that it's 1990 all over again.

It's also got me thinking about my moribund research project on "Solo Performance and Sexual Citizenship in the United States, 1984-2004." This project, which originally began as a comparative one also considering solo performance during the same period in Canada, has continued to evolve as I have been interrupted in my thinking by other ideas and projects. However, at the core of my research remains a desire to contextualize--and historicize--the development of solo performance (in theatre and performance art, stand-up comedy and concert films, video and dance) in the United States from the re-election of Reagan to that of George W. Bush, paying special attention to how much of this work, in its reflexive foregrounding of the queerly gendered body, comments on flashpoint debates relating to sexual citizenship in that country (from AIDS and gays in the military to reproductive politics and same-sex marriage) over the past 20 years.

A key question structuring my investigations is how the radical potential of AIDS activist politics in the 1980s and early 1990s, which seemed to offer a new way of thinking about citizenship and kinship outside of normative models of family and coupledom, morphed into the virtually wholesale adoption of same-sex marriage as the do-or-die cause of the current mainstream LGBTQ movement in the US. To this end, the larger project will likely have to bring the historical narrative up to at least 2008 (and likely beyond) and the fight over Proposition 8 in California that served as the backdrop to the election of Barack Obama. Prop 8 is in fact the subject of Miller's Lay of the Land, and his previous show, Us, was also preoccupied with marriage rights for the LGBTQ community. Ditto, it seems, Hughes's Let Them Eat Cake, which, according to the show's website, is about "the wedding nightmare your mother warned you about: a gay marriage gone wrong that asks the guests to salvage the situation by interrogating what it means to be married, single, gay, straight, commitment-phobic, a joiner, included or jeering from the outskirts." Even post-porn performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who exposed her clit to audience members in the 1980s, has embarked on a seven-year performance art wedding project with her partner Beth Stephens (see

What's going on? And how might Karen Finley, the "straight" member of the NEA Four (the other was John Fleck, who seems to have all but disappeared, most recently seen in a bit part on the TV show Weeds), help us to see more queerly about this apparent embracing of mainstream normativity artistically and politically? I offer the following excursus, from a paper drafted in the very early stages of this project, as one possible explanation for why the past week has, to me at any rate, felt like deja vu all over again.

Towards the end of The Constant State of Desire, the solo performance piece that Karen Finley premiered at The Kitchen in New York City in the fall of 1986, and that together with C. Carr’s provocative exposé of Finley’s “taboo art” in The Village Voice earlier that summer, helped put her on the radar of both uptown cultural impresarios and critics and uptight politicians like Jesse Helms, Finley follows a particularly harrowing description of sexual abuse and “unrequited [father] love” with the following encomium to Ronald Reagan’s butthole:

… I saw Mr. Reagan on TV. There is a TV camera up his butthole looking up his asshole for polyps, for his colon cancer. He is so obsessed with what not to put up the butthole. So obsessed with what not to go up, up the ol’ shithole. Had to sit with Rather/Jennings talk about yo’ old polyps every day. Boy, I call your disease a metaphor. I call your disease your personal metaphor of being a fuckin’ pain in the butt. I’m puking, man, on your liberty, your state of the union. (151)

Plus ça change. In her most recent play, George and Martha, a two-hander that opened at New York’s Collective Unconscious shortly after the 2004 Republican National Convention, Finley interrupts her Albeesque dissection of the kinky sexual relationship she posits between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart with a similar scene of political scatology. George, played by Neal Medlyn, awakens suddenly from a fitful sleep, convinced that Osama bin Laden is inside him; consummately professional and ever-prepared with handy home remedies, Finley’s Martha promptly grabs a flashlight, orders George down on all fours, and proceeds to inspect his anus for trace signs of the Al Qaeda leader.

Much has been made of the kinder, gentler, post-9/11 Finley, the Finley who, following the collapse of her Supreme Court case against the NEA in 1998, entered Jungian analysis, packed up her bags and left New York for LA, worked through her political and personal demons in Shut Up and Love Me (1999), only to return with a new, hyper-theatrical, multi-character, and giddily empathetic performance style in Make Love (2003); here, Finley trades her former focus on the stripped, naked and exposed “I” who speaks of individual suffering, for a series of lavishly made-up, bewigged and laméd “Lizas,” whose unresolved childhood traumas and ongoing family dysfunction become the means to work through issues of national mourning and collective healing. But to the extent that the family, as an “unhomely space,” has always served as a metonym of the nation in Finley’s work, that, for her, states of desire are always contingent upon and circumscribed by the state of the union, and that, as my opening excerpts in part attest, fathers, foodstuffs, and anality have repeatedly been used by Finley as performative signifiers of national and sexual abjection, there is, I would argue, more continuity than discontinuity between Finley’s early 1980s brand of Artuadian theatre of cruelty and her more recent Ludlamesque experiments in ridiculousness, particularly with respect to questions of sexual citizenship.

That is, taken as a whole, what Finley’s two-decade corpus of mostly solo work illustrates is that both the sexual terrorism and the terror of sexual difference that she explores in works ranging from I’m an Ass Man (1984) and We Keep Our Victims Ready (1990) to The Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman (1998) and Shut Up and Love Me leads directly to the national (in)security state dissected in Make Love and George and Martha. As Liza #3 (played by Finley) puts it at one point in the former work—which, I would argue, works more or less a solo performance piece—“In our expressed collective grief we can now without guilt express our own personal childhood terrors of abandonment and abuse in the safety of disguise known as national mourning…. America was built on and grows from fear…. Our projections as a nation of living with fear. Our leaders. Our fears heightened with national security so we are in national bondage, our country is a national S and M torture chamber” (60).

Finley’s persistent focus on the literal embodiment of otherness (what hasn’t she ingested, poured over herself, or regurgitated while on stage?) foregrounds the sexed, sexual, and sexualized stranger as the unassimilable, abject limit that both constructs what is known and familiar about the citizen’s identity and what threatens the very stability of that identity (cf., as well, in this regard the images to emerge from Abu Ghraib). The processes of incorporation and expulsion highlighted in the excerpts above, not to mention the visceral, often physical, reaction audiences frequently have to Finley’s performances (even, and maybe most especially, if they haven’t seen them), illustrate, among other things, how participatory regimes like liberal democracies formally deny certain bodies and communities full membership in the national polity through a paradoxical process of anxious identification and reluctant estrangement, the labelling of someone as not like you (a pronoun that appears almost as often as “I” in Finley’s solo works) being necessarily premised on an unspoken acknowledgement of similitude, of the uncanny possibility of being just like you.

I'm not sure I even know all of what I'm on about here; however, I do think the question of embodiment is what continues to link Finley's work with that of Miller and Hughes and Sprinkle--past and present. These artists are putting their bodies on the line for us (dear Tim does so love to get naked). For that reason alone, and no matter the content, the work remains relevant--and queer.


Monday, December 6, 2010

RIP: David French

The Mercer family and English-Canadian theatre have lost their paterfamilias.

Reading the Globe today, I learned that David French has died from cancer, aged 71. It may seem hard to believe now what a landmark event Leaving Home was when it premiered at the Tarragon in Toronto 40 years ago. But as Soulpepper's recent revival of it--and French's subsequent Mercer family plays, Of the Fields Lately and Salt-Water Moon--the work stands the test of time.

His voice shall be missed.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

In Brief

Last night, Richard and I did something we haven't done at the theatre in a long time, if ever: we walked out at intermission. The show was the Vancouver Playhouse production of Brief Encounter, Emma Rice's adaptation of the 1946 David Lean film, itself based on the one-act play, Still Life, by Noel Coward. Never mind that Max Reimer's production is as all-over-the-place and mish-mashy as his cast's accents; the play itself is a travesty of styles and tone, a burlesque of Lean's beautifully restrained film, which zeroed in with unflinching intensity on its two principals' willed suppression of their desire for each other. The train station tea shop was a perfect metaphor for the temporal fleetingness and what ifs that defined their relationship: but in another place, at another time, they might have been allowed to remain together.

By opening up the action to the supporting characters in the shop, Rice creates some additional stage business to be sure, but why clutter that up with so many theatrical tricks? Puppets, song and dance numbers, toy trains, a bicycle, and all the winking acknowledgements of the audience--and that was just the first act! Then there's the piece's integration of filmed sequences into the live action on stage, the element that seems most to have caught audiences' imaginations in the UK and on Broadway, where the show just closed after what I gather was a reasonably successful run. I don't know what all the hoopla is about--the effects were really quite pedestrian, to my mind, and made what The Electric Company did earlier this fall with Tear the Curtain! seem downright genius (which, as you may recall, I also had major caveats about).

There was a twinge, as we collected our coats, about not sticking around to see what the production does with Alec's fellow doctor-friend, Stephen Lynn, whose flat Alec borrows for an aborted rendez-vous with Laura in the film. As Richard Dyer has famously--and most convincingly--argued, Stephen is quite clearly coded as gay, and it would have been interesting to see what Rice does with this in our post-Wolfenden, post-queer, post-post era. However, after the butchering of Rachmaninoff to close Act 1, we decided it wasn't worth sticking around to find out.