Victory Gardens Studio Theater

David Mamula’s current one-man show blurs the distinction between art and criticism, and even, perhaps, therapy. It’s not a traditional evening of the quick-change artist showcasing his versatility. In Mixed Company is a different article altogether. Mamula’s 18 characters each have a stubborn, eerie individuality, yet they all seem like extensions of Mamula’s inscrutable personality. A few of these characters even have a life all their own, and only visit a vignette or the context of the show. These few characters have a strange intensity, like Norman Bates when he becomes his mother in Psycho, and they have a purpose. In Mixed Company is a sometimes comic, sometimes cryptic, but always intelligent assault upon art and the role of the artist.

One of the central characters is Walter, a commentator. In the first act, Walter introduces the audience to performance art, modern dance, and new music. Walter’s explanations are priceless. “What is performance art? Even the artist doesn’t know.” And he goes on to explain, in his awkward and pedantic way, such concepts as the “total visuality of the whole,” insofar as such concepts can be explained. Eventually realizing the impossibility of explanation, and stopping judiciously short of the judgmental, Walter shuffles offstage saying, “You see for yourself, and you decide.”

Shortly after a not-so-quick change, and a couple false light cues, Mamula enters as Z, the performance artist. He wears a white mask and outfit, and carries a white shopping bag. Portentous, postmodern science-fiction music is playing. Z asks questions like “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?” and pulls from his bag cue cards with names, professions, places, and situations written on them. One by one the cards are discarded. None of them give him satisfaction, although he briefly cherishes the card marked “artist.” Insecurity and the artistic dilemma.

The performance art piece is funny, and an astute satire in its own right. The new music and modern dance acts that follow are less amusing, amounting to little more than light illustrations of self-indulgence in the art world. But Walter’s commentary between the acts is excellent. Walter is so eager to explain these new and confusing art movements to the audience. And he stresses the importance of such movements, in that they provide a place in the arts for those who aren’t thin enough to dance, or who don’t know how to play a musical instrument. “It’s not bad music. It’s new music.” It’s so important to Walter that we understand.

Filling out the show are several other artistic mutants. There’s Vincent and Vivian, Siamese twins who perform a xylophone and violin duet, frenetically pantomimed by Mamula in an ambisexual costume. There’s Harvey Lester, a lounge organist who’s so aware of his own talent and uniqueness that he can just barely make an effort to perform for us, his inferiors. And there’s Frances. Frances, unfortunately, only appears on film, and the projector wasn’t working so well on opening night. But apparently Frances is yet another of those walking wounded, a would-be dancer well on her way to becoming a bag lady. The one thing that all these characters have in common is that they are inexorably alone. Even Vivian wants a separation from Vincent. On this point Mamula seems to be deliberately obscure: he never hints as to whether this solitude is a function of art itself, the inability to create relevant art, or just some character malfunction that leads poor souls into such futile endeavors.

The most compelling of Mamula’s characters, I think, isn’t an artist at all, although she is a performer of a sort. This is Viola, the 60-second chef. Viola’s creations are made of four basic ingredients: lard, Wonder Bread, cooking oil, and mayonnaise. She promotes the goodness and the purity of these staples, which are, logically enough, all white. Decked out in a squat pillbox hat and cat’s-eye sunglasses, Viola races against an egg timer to prepare her little “surprises.” And the Dobish Tort (whatever that is) is certainly at least as surprising as it is nauseating. Topping even that, however, is Viola’s second recipe, which involves squeezing lard right out of the wrapper, as if from a pastry tube, and then setting the godawful thing on fire. Where Viola came from and why she became the 60-second chef remains as much a mystery as the artistic destiny of the performance artist. But if you follow Viola’s recipe, she guarantees that your guests will remember you and talk about you. So much for the immortality of the artist.

I can’t recommend In Mixed Company for everyone. Me, I liked it, or most of it anyway. Mamula is one intense performer, and that makes up for the many, many technical failures of the show, as well as whatever direction Warren Baumgart thought he was providing. No point in going on about it, but this is, stagewise, a clunky and unprofessional production to sit through. Mamula is the sole professional here and there’s only so much that one person can manage. Although Mamula is often inchoate and obscure, when he’s on, he’s right on the money. What makes Mamula different is that he’s not just some guy up there trying to be funny. It’s more personal than that. The guy is up there exorcising the household demons of the theater.