at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

April 13-15 and 21-23

James Grigsby knows how to put an evening together. The two pieces he’s currently showing at MoMing–Hard Coin and From Here to Detroit–together run for a little over an hour, just the right length for two intellectually demanding works. Refreshingly, Grigsby feels no impulse to fill an evening, to cater to the mentality that feels shortchanged at having paid $10 for an hour. Instead, Grigsby understands how psychological time plays a part in his performances: as he weaves complicated patterns of image and text, time is suspended, and the “running time” seems utterly irrelevant.

Hard Coin exploits the tension between psychological time and running time, and with stunning results. The set for Hard Coin, designed by Lonn L. Frye, consists of a multileveled cubic structure pasted over with grossly enlarged fragments of what seem to be advertising billboards; these feature smiling, squeaky-clean all-American types. To the right of this structure, hanging from MoMing’s cavernous ceiling, is a broad wooden swing that holds an antique porcelain doll and a vase decked out with ancient artificial flowers. To the left hangs a huge blue disk with a bright yellow “T” painted across it; a single red hand on its face points straight up.

So upon walking into the theater, the audience is immediately asked to reflect on time. An “event” is obviously going to happen on the cubic structure in “real time,” probably to be kept track of by the huge clock. But not only is the clock’s face blank and therefore useless, but because it hangs from the ceiling, time is literally suspended–just as the relics from the past are suspended on the swing. I cannot recall sitting in a theater and being so challenged by an artist’s set.

Grigsby then enters, far upstage through an offstage door, throwing a breathtaking shaft of light across the darkened space. Dressed all in black plastic and carrying a black traveling bag, he announces, “I’m out of here. I’m taking the next shuttle. Up.” Soon thereafter he crosses to the suspended clock, rotates the dial about 120 degrees, and says, “You’ve got about 20 minutes.”

Twenty minutes for us to find our way through a complicated series of verbal and visual images about space travel, history, dating services, and perfection. Grigsby follows no story line, and his several themes appear and disappear and then suddenly intersect. Early on he tries to sell us a copy of “Perfection magazine” and then gazes up at stars projected onto the ceiling, wondering if aliens would ignore him because of his unorthodox style of dress. Later he describes the “Get Him” system, which can turn “two perfect people into a perfect couple in only seven days.” Suddenly the impossibility of perfect love is superimposed over the remembered image of the lonely man gazing at the stars, doubling the intensity of both images.

Grigsby’s visual ingenuity is captivating. Whether he’s operating a mechanical stuffed bird mounted on his head or riding a lightning-filled cloud across the stage, Grigsby always gives us something to watch. Most remarkable, though, is the big clock, which actually runs throughout the piece. In fact, by the end, the hand had returned exactly to its original position, and just as the lights faded, the clock struck! Aside from the technical expertise involved–how does he time an apparently casual piece so perfectly?–the striking of the clock is a thrilling conclusion to any musings about time. The clock suddenly becomes the controlling intelligence onstage: it says, in effect, “Time’s up,” as if it, and not the performer, has been running the show the whole time. In a piece so full of images of human smallness and inadequacy, the final usurpation by the clock reduces human agency to nil.

His second piece, From Here to Detroit, seemed a bit thinner to me, although perhaps I simply couldn’t take it all in after being so overwhelmed by Hard Coin. From Here to Detroit explores finding one’s bearings. Grigsby literally tries to find his way around the stage; by the end of the piece, he’s trying to find his way out of the theater using an inflatable globe. He also explores the complexity of finding one’s psychological bearings, of understanding the self in relation to others when each self is its own distinct universe. Throughout the piece he constructs onstage an elaborate machine–designed by an inspired Jim Janecek–built out of old drainpipes, ladders, and what I think is a bicycle wheel. Clearly this machine is supposed to offer some remedy for his predicament, to offer him some guiding inspiration. Indeed, when he is finally about to plug it in, bright light and heavenly music pour down on him.

From Here to Detroit is full of arresting imagery, but its structure seems weak. Grigsby delivers a monologue, and then music plays and he adds some pieces to his machine. The music stops, he delivers another monologue, and the music starts again and he returns to his construction. Why not talk and build at the same time? Certainly that would have been a more surprising choice, and one that would have allowed for all kinds of fortuitous collisions between text and action. Separating the two parts of the piece weakened both, making the ideas in the monologues too distant from the building of the machine. This bifurcation also left him stranded onstage during his monologues, and his pacing back and forth may have been an intentional or accidental solution to that problem, but certainly it made the monologues all the more difficult to follow. A seemingly indiscriminate action like pacing in a meticulously built stage environment causes much of the piece’s tension to be lost. The few moments when the text does interact with the mechanical device–as when Grigsby “dances” on top of a ladder–are the most successful in the piece.

I have to admit, though, that my reservations were quite done away with when he plugged in that machine. From Here to Detroit has an ending so revelatory, delightful, and precious that none of it should be given away, It’s enough to say that, after watching him build that thing for half an hour and thinking “this better be good,” I was not disappointed.

What impresses me most about Grigsby’s work is his careful, deliberate, methodical manner. His pieces are delivered with a consummate clarity, with no attempt to mask his ideas or mystify his work (as so many Chicago performers often do). Instead of intimidating his audience, defying us to figure out what’s going on, he takes care of us, laying out in as thoughtful a manner as possible every element of his work. In doing so, Grigsby makes himself vulnerable. He has no pose to hide behind. His work is then necessarily fragile, and often particular sections failed to engage me. But what always engages me is his warm, sincere presence, which seems to welcome me to the theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Palazzolo.