This past Saturday found me at El Colegio Charter School for a production of Andrew Kim's Want, which was terrific. Kim played four silent scenes in masks, inspired, as he often is, by a combination of commedia dell'arte-styled physical comedy and Korean mask theater. Kim, looking like a wooden-faced extra from Planet of the Apes, played tug of war with audience members. He built a toy theater-style baby-in-a-manger scene, sans baby Jesus, which he replaced with various unexpected items: duct tape, car keys, a sock monkey. He set newspapers on fire and played dirges to them on a bamboo flute. Each of Kim's short scenes were bracketed by songs performed by an emaciated fellow named Gregg Dare, who squeezed a wheezy old accordion, wore a swallow-tailed tuxedo coat and a cheap felt bowler, and roared out grotesque melodies with lyrics such as "O Lord, why did you make me a drunk, you asshole you."
Dare is part of a Seattle-based group called Circus Contraption, who, according to their Web page, "possess the following circus skills: vertical rope, Spanish web, low swinging trapeze; high static trapeze." The list continues, including an entire section dedicated to "strange dances, freak oddities" such as baby aardvark ballerinas and beetle tamers. Circus Contraption also produces music, and I bought one of their CDs in the entryway to El Colegio, which, appropriately, was still filled with Day of the Dead shrines from the recent holiday.
The Circus Contraption CD, titled Our Latest Catalogue, proved to be an ominous little collection of songs filled with antiquated musical sounds--mazurkas and polkas played on musical saws and tuneless pianos. Sample lyrics: "July like a dog that's lain down in the road/The heat's made you bloated, may you burst like a toad"; and "Happy little larval friends will dine upon your skin/We'll pocket your gold teeth before we notify your kin." The CD case has a photo of the group, packed into one corner of a gold-leaf-wallpapered room, sipping beers, all done up in top hats, derbies, ascots, and sepulchral makeup.
The Contraption sing every song in an affected, gruff manner. Perhaps one of them was behind the peculiar telephone call I received this weekend, in which a monstrous, inhuman voice repeated a dozen times, without pause for breath, the words "What are you staring at?" and then hung up. Oddly, when I heard the voice, I was staring at a photo of performance artist Heidi Arneson.
Arneson has developed a show, currently playing at the Red Eye, called Snake Lady Sheds Her Skin, in which she appears on stage with a dozen other performers. This is the first time Arneson has performed such a show, as she usually does solo work, and the experience of seeing it was strange. She has costumed her cast like--well, like Circus Contraption, in the same battered, outmoded costumes and ghostly makeup. They look great, or at least as great as such a mangy bunch can look, but they all seem somewhat out of place when it comes to mouthing Arneson's mannered script. In fact, the whole show left me a little bemused, and so I called her the next day to sort out what I had seen.
First, as I suspected, many of the performers onstage are students of Arneson from a class she regularly teaches in storytelling. Arneson is a superb storyteller with a singular stage presence ("I think I am something of a character," she says on the telephone, in what must be a masterpiece of understatement). She poses onstage with her head thrown back, eyes wild and heavily made up, skin sparkling with glitter, reciting beatnicky poetry in a voice that alternates between coltish and husky. It's an affected style, but suited to the yarns she tells, which are usually full of failed romances and horrific childhood encounters. In this instance, Arneson has written a comedy of blasphemies, in which she depicts a jilted lover of God. She plays the role with arms akimbo, occasionally launching into Little Egypt striptease-style dance routines while spilling the sordid details of her tryst with the Almighty.
The remainder of the cast rolls about on the stage of the Red Eye--which is bare but for assorted spilled fruit--occasionally offering supportive comments or acting out snippets of Arneson's narration. But Arneson has a way of finessing her own poetic dialogue while reciting it. Much of the script consists of childlike sentiments expressed in a deliberately silly fashion ("You've got it all right here in your back pocket, so why are you shopping at the mall, y'all?"). When Arneson speaks--or, more properly, ululates--such words, their silliness and earnestness are very much in character. From the remainder of the cast, they feel forced and insipid.
"I should tell you that this is something of an experiment," Arneson confesses over the phone. Her challenge, in incorporating other performers into her productions, is to find actors who have a similarly exacting stage presence. At this point, her students do not, and seem awkward and amateurish as a result. But Arneson need not despair of finding suitable collaborators. Ours is a world of fascinating freaks. They dress in monkey masks and perform wordless plays, they form circuses in Seattle and wail funereal dirges, they call me in the middle of the night and demand in unearthly voices to know what I am staring at. Arneson needs to find these people and put them on stage with her.