Sweet Hereafter

Carolyn Goelzer reconstructs Janis Joplin; Arthur Miller remembers a life

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. Perhaps closer to the fact in our current culture of personality, there are no curtain calls. According to the kamikaze dictum of modern American celebrity, it is better to drive off a cliff trailing clouds of glory than to coast into one's dotage on VH1. Janis Joplin, the quintessential shooting star and sometime feminist icon, may have pioneered death as a career move: Since her expiration in 1970, so many rockers have gone howling into the sunset that a penchant for self-destruction has come to seem a prerequisite for stardom. And yet as Carolyn Goelzer's one-woman show, Vicarious Thrills, demonstrates, there is something endlessly fascinating in the downward spiral of celebrity life. As the title suggests, the martyrs of rock 'n' roll satisfy our own need for status, for melodrama, and finally, for resolution: We live vicariously through our chosen messiahs and experience risk-free oblivion in their self-immolation. If Joplin didn't exactly die for our sins, there is something undeniably cathartic about watching the curtain fall early.

As Janis, Goelzer is equal parts blustery swagger and coy insecurity. Draped in the love beads and ridiculous psychedelic couture that made Joplin a fashion plate in the Sixties, the actor careens across the Red Eye's bare stage swilling bourbon and belting out Joplin's Texas blues. Aside from an introductory slide show about the singer's childhood home, Goelzer's stage antics dominate the stray bits of biographical narrative that threaten to turn Vicarious Thrills into a play. To appreciate Joplin, Goelzer suggests, we need not know about her life, but we must know her. And, in order to introduce us, she does her best to become Joplin. Her method is less evocation than impersonation. There is no ironic distance in her stage banter, and no gloss of Joplin's self-depreciating, often incoherent demeanor.

If Goelzer doesn't offer much in the way of commentary on the sadomasochistic streak that made Joplin such a compelling singer, she makes a strong case for the songs themselves. Joplin's voice, baked hard from years of smoking and gargling with whiskey, is difficult to imitate, because the singer was forever transcending the limits of her vocal range, wavering into falsetto one moment and diving into a husky growl the next. Goelzer, who has an extraordinarily strong voice herself, seems to understand that Joplin's strength was not her vocal proficiency but her willingness to expose her weakness. Backed by the rock band Metaphor (who are, in turn, backed by a video montage of shifting psychedelia that looks a bit like Jackson Pollock's splatter art), Goelzer does admirable justice to much of Joplin's oeuvre--although it seems criminal to deny us the pleasure of "Mercedes Benz" or "Me and Bobby McGee."

Less assured and more intriguing than the songs, the narrative bits of Vicarious Thrills attempt a meditation on ersatz celebrity. In one scene, a video projection of Goelzer's face gives performance tips to Goelzer, the actor. The face also offers some insight into Goelzer's fandom: "I wanted to be Janis." In a way, this shadowy urge to live vicariously through a dead rock star is more involving than anything Vicarious Thrills actually puts onstage. The great question, after all, is not why the rock-star life is so very bad, but why everyone in America wants so very badly to live it.

 

Celebrity and Death were also in attendance for last week's Guthrie Lab premiere of Mr. Peters' Connections. The playwright, Arthur Miller, received a standing ovation at the curtain, and responded with a small wave. Despite the restrained reaction, however, Miller could hardly have been displeased with James Houghton's evocative production.

In the hazy light of the nightclub in which Miller sets his scene, a man (William Biff McGuire) who may or may not have gone to his eternal reward, attempts to piece together a coherent narrative from the flotsam of his life. "What's the subject," he repeats like an existentialist mantra to a cast of surreal caricatures including his wife (Augusta Dabney), a diabolical real estate agent (Stephen Yoakam), and a shapely figurant (Kaili Vernoff). With Helleresque wit, Miller builds a nostalgic and personal play into a profound account of the impossibility of meaning in a world without memory. Life, he suggests, is a near-death experience. Blessed are those who remember to live accordingly.

 
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