Portrait of the Artist as a
Soul Man Dead
Near Death Experiences
with Leni Riefenstahl
IN ONE MONTH my older sister will be wed in a frightfully lavish ceremony in suburban New York--the kind of tragicomic affair where the bill for the floral arrangements could represent the GNP of some squalid equatorial republic. Mom says it costs what it costs. Amidst the bachelor's bacchanalia I will be searching New York's outer boroughs for two lost scripts--Portrait of the Artist as a Soul Man Dead and Near Death Experiences with Leni Riefenstahl--by young New York playwrights Jake-Ann Jones and Carlos Murillo. Premiering at the Penumbra and Red Eye theaters respectively, these plays appear to be the incomplete work of imposters. Nothing else could explain the rich scenic and sonic treatments devoted to such thin, wanting words. Like my sister's wedding, it would seem big checks and exhaustive planning have been employed to minor effect; unlike the wedding, my mom is not the publicist and I can say whatever I want.
Imagine that A Christmas Carol took place after Scrooge was dead. Imagine that Scrooge was a guerrilla-graffiti art-scene wunderkind named Sonny Maxwell, and his estranged father, So'Man, a labially impaired former jazz great, was a kind of Marley figure. And instead of three ghosts, Sonny was haunted by three hand-jiving, verse-talking Furies in leotards. And his problem was hubris, not greed. And it wasn't Christmas. If you can imagine all that, you might have a reasonable idea of the plot behind Portrait of a Title as a Reference Gone Bad, another story of dysfunctional fathers and sons whom therapy could not reach in time. The men talk incessantly about inner demons and junky hell. Wife/mother Elizabeth and girlfriend Belle are the sober, neglected lifesavers for their capsized boys--evidence that a playwright need not be a man to short-shrift women.
The most frustrating thing about Portrait might be how tantalizingly close it comes to being something quite good. As stylishly directed by Lou Bellamy and choreographed by Laurie Carlos, the four lead actors--Sonny and Belle, So'Man and So'Spouse--remain onstage throughout. When one pair speaks, the other plays through their preceding scene in slow-motion pantomime--the shadow of a pendulum maintaining the momentum of conflict between father and son. Later in the play, after Sonny's seduction by those notorious harpies on the Tribeca gallery scene, So'Man stands behind his son as they shadowbox in sync; despite their estrangement the Maxwell men tilt windmills together. While Carlos's movement occasionally confuses kinetic with frenetic, she and Bellamy have devised an effective visual vocabulary, such that this play might work better without its dialogue.
No small component of this production's unfailing energy is the elaborate scenic design of W.J.E. Hammer and the live musical accompaniment of renowned trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe (a.k.a. Peterson). Lokumbe, who here dresses like Miles Davis and sounds like Don Cherry, lurks in the recesses of the stage, shrieking and squawking with the horn, barking and moaning without it. He is a faceless emotional surrogate, absorbing the characters' bad feelings and spitting them back in music and sound. Equally suggestive are the neon and word-art scribblings that cover the multilevel stage (think of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young casualty of the New York gallery scene in the '80s... or don't). They are like talismans of the furies (and not the silly ones Jones has authored), forces of the chthonic that erupt in So'Man and son's art. Reflecting on all this, one is struck at how gorgeous this play might have been. Alas, the set giveth and the script taketh away.
Leni Riefenstahl features another set that's all dressed up with nowhere to go: a 50-foot-long shower curtain partition, luminous white closets, and a cellophane scrim-mirror arrangement that almost suggests infinity. (Daron Walker's driving soundscape, either created on dexedrine or for dexedrine, has also been squandered to no purpose.) While I won't embarrass myself with any attempt at summarizing the plot, I have every reason to believe it involves potato-sculpting; a one-footed, one-song bard; Eva (Braun?); ingested spinal-tap-ecstasy; self-crucifixion; the god Osiris; and Egyptian real-estate speculation. Think that sounds funny? Think again. Try to swallow these emetic dialogue samples: "I am the patron saint of gallows humor and you are my high priest"; "Osiris can go fuck himself--he's a cunt." But isn't he always?
Depending on one's sympathies, Carlos Murillo either borrows or steals from the Cronenberg version of Naked Lunch--and the only thing worse than Burroughs (whom I've long considered a chickenshit nihilist) might be his less intelligent imitators. Yet there may be one thing still more odious than the insufferable pretensions of Leni Riefenstahl: listening to the competitive laughter of the Red Eye's strenuously hip crowd pretending to get it. CP
Portrait of the Artist as a Soul Man Dead runs through May 12; call 224-3180;Near Death Experiences with Leni Riefenstahl runs through May, call 870-0309.