Jenny Magnus

at N.A.M.E. Gallery

September 13 and 14

When Jenny Magnus burst into the performance space at N.A.M.E., giggling, twisting, and trying to fend off an invisible tickling attacker, there was something nearly orgasmic, and just about unbearable, about the moment. That she regained her composure was inevitable. But that she managed to retain that harrowing tension between pleasure and pain–to revel in it, to practically cry with it–that was brilliant.

Magnus, a local cult hero and performance treasure, staged Kings-X Tyrannosaurus Rex Constantinople, an hour-long collection of mostly solo pieces, for one weekend only at N.A.M.E. Gallery. But Magnus’s show may move to Bucktown’s Curious Theatre Branch, which she helped found, in a few weeks; there’s also talk of her returning to N.A.M.E. So there should be plenty of opportunities to catch this show–a good thing, because it’s not to be missed.

Performing on a nearly bare stage, wearing simple, loose black clothing and round-toed men’s shoes, Magnus dances, spins, sings, and mesmerizes. Ably but unobtrusively assisted by Anita Stenger and Mark Comiskey, Magnus offers 16 short pieces that play with words and irony but never cease to make her vulnerable. No stone is left unturned. Magnus picks at her fears as if they were deliciously tempting scabs. No matter how intimate the revelations, she perseveres, without a smidgen of sentimentality, sensationalism, or self-pity. Her ability to face uncertainty, to look it right in the eye, is devastating.

Magnus plays male and female roles with equal ease, but often strikes so androgynous a pose that it’s impossible to tell if she intends a gender or not. And she does play “roles,” not “characters.” Although she never comes right out and says it, it’s understood that what we see is personal–different aspects of the same person, of the artist herself. Magnus’s talent for transforming herself not only offers personal revelation but blurs the boundaries of gender, age, sexual orientation, and even time period.

“Like Stefan,” a playful piece in which Magnus imitates and celebrates a friend’s idiosyncrasies, begins the show and immediately signals the artist’s intentions. While Magnus expertly explores her pal’s obsession with putting everything in perspective, she also makes it clear that what she is presenting here is ultimately her perspective alone. “Like Stefan” is funny and smart, but it’s also an exceptionally clear statement of artistic responsibility and purpose.

Many of the pieces are simply hilarious. “Owning” and “Torture” are the performance equivalents of one-liners. Mercifully, Magnus knows how to tell her jokes–she never repeats a joke or drags one out. She respects her audience, expecting us to be as smart as she is. “Tell Me What You Know Johnnie,” a mini-opera in which she sings all the roles, delights and surprises–her intelligence carries us, and we suspend our disbelief.

Other pieces are painful to watch and listen to. In “Susie Susie Please” Magnus takes the role of a rejected lover literally begging for another chance. Initially she adopts the slight Irish accent and slurred words of some old bum to recite this hopeless litany–but every line is something we’ve heard from a lover, something we’ve said ourselves. At first it’s kind of funny, then it’s uncomfortable. By the end of it–abrupt, relieving–it is uncommonly sad.

The show’s apex is “Robert,” an absurd but terrifying meditation on loneliness and the fragility of relationships. Magnus as Robert is a little too arrogant at first to be sympathetic, a little too cynical and effete. But as she peels away layer after layer of this man’s persona, his patently ridiculous condition–he has poison ivy growing out of his asshole–reveals itself as a savage metaphor for human guilt, dependency, and fear; a true horror.

In “Robert,” performed center stage, Magnus’s movements seem pinched attempts at casualness. She offers no hope per se, but somehow manages to keep her self-respect. “At first I thought it happened because of something I’d done,” she says of the ivy. “Then I decided it didn’t matter how it got there.” In this way, she rejects all notions of judgment and atonement. In their place, she embraces the struggle to go on, to live with whatever cards have been dealt, no matter how crazy or indecipherable her destiny.

Magnus closes with “Spelunker,” a sequel of sorts to an earlier piece, “The Story of a Woman Who Was Made Not Born,” about her confused notion that she might be a hermaphrodite. “Spelunker” is told in the third person, in a southern Cat on a Hot Tin Roof accent that just smolders, and in it Magnus speaks of the confrontation between sexual expectations and sexual reality. Popular media portray “sexual pleasure as an easy slide,” she says. “But I’m sorry to say that for many, many people, that is just not the case.” Sex is serious stuff, she seems to say, even when it’s fun. It’s messy, inspiring, religious, and also mundane. Something besides just the acrobatic had better go on.

The title of the program, at first confusing and clumsy, becomes clear by the end. The phrase “Kings-X Tyrannosaurus Rex Constantinople” is a Magnus family invention to make tormenting ticklers stop–if you can actually spit it out. Magnus uses it only once during the program, and it’s perfect.

Known primarily for her work with the Curious Theatre Branch, Magnus is also terrific with the art-rock band Maestro Subgum and the Whole. But on her own, Jenny Magnus is everything a performance artist should be: subversive, personal, stimulating, a little scary, and simply amazing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phillip J. Cantor.