Two Men Are Dead Continued, Bare-Handed, and Arthur 33

Dolores Wilbur and Mike Geither

at Randolph Street Gallery,

February 10 and 11

The Museum: An Exploratory Gallery

Chicago Actors Ensemble

at the Preston Bradley Community Center, through February 26

It must be extraordinary. Whether it’s a field of metallic green in a painting, a triple pirouette on pointe, an actor’s Belfast accent, or a performance artist shooting himself in the arm, a work of art must contain extraordinary things. That’s the beginning of the seduction of the viewer that is part of entertainment and art.

Performance artists traditionally have reversed our ideas of extraordinary acts–they do things ordinary people wouldn’t be caught dead doing: disgusting acts, such as pouring bugs all over themselves; obscene or taboo acts, such as being naked onstage or cross-dressing; apparently senseless acts, such as running in place for many minutes; and acts that are plainly lunatic, such as the German performance artist who cut off his penis and bled to death. Yet they’re still extraordinary acts, designed to stimulate and engage.

Chicagoan Dolores Wilber uses such extraordinary acts in Two Men Are Dead Continued, performed by a man and two bare-breasted women dressed only in boxer shorts and black boots. The man runs in place for a couple of minutes, his face squinched as tightly as a mole’s. Later he puts on a wedding gown. All three cover themselves with floor-length veils, then empty a vial of ladybugs (which I thought were maggots at first) over their faces and heads. All these acts have a visceral kick, causing a breathless, giddy reaction.

Wilber, who wrote the text, based the first section on two Faulkner short stories. At the beginning the performers announce that a woman and two men are dead. The townspeople thought the woman should have killed herself long ago, but when she eats arsenic they think she’s gone too far, and are afraid of being thought complicit. The women wrestle as the man strikes diving poses and gargoyle arabesques. Because of their seminudity, the sequence is bizarrely funny. But despite the extraordinary events onstage, overall the narrative didn’t jell; I felt as if I were reading the second novel of a trilogy before I’d read the first.

Wilber’s Bare-handed, a piece for three women, has a much clearer narrative and several stunning movement images, but since it has no taboo acts it doesn’t yield the visceral response that her other piece does. Still, the narrative is intriguing; the text is from a dueling scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, but the subject is a woman’s devastation by a failed love affair. After the duel, a woman (Clare Dolan) dons knee and elbow pads, then straps her legs into a yoga lotus position. She crawls off the table and across the floor, pulling herself by her elbows and dragging her body behind her, like a pathetic legless cripple. Later the other two women lay Dolan on the table; Dolan releases her legs from the straps, then ties stilts to her feet with lengths of cloth and totters through the space as if she had a peg leg–which is an improvement over being legless. Dolan tells a joke about an armless woman, and I found myself hoping that she’d recover entirely. The performance ends abruptly at this point, though the story doesn’t seem to be over. The piece is often repetitive, but Wilber’s poetic device of showing a love affair ending in a duel works just fine; the oblique narrative isn’t obscure.

Cleveland’s Mike Geither is more a writer than a performer; he doesn’t offer extraordinary acts in Arthur 33, but he does describe some pretty extraordinary things. Geither’s stories are about just surviving: taking care of a schizophrenic mother (“So I asked her the questions. ‘Ma, who’s the president? What day is it?'”) and working on a locked psych ward (“She hallucinates little clowns. She’ll suddenly turn and say into thin air, ‘Don’t you dare expose yourself to me like that'”). Geither’s main story is about his 70-year-old great aunt Rose, who after her husband died while she was passing the salt to him goes to Florida for a series of sexual flings. Geither describes Rose making love to a woman she called “the floating woman,” both of them wearing crockery bowls on their heads. Geither’s telling is straightforward; he shows us Rose’s mementos from Florida, such as the crockery bowls and some dish towels. When Geither breaks through his own reserve–as when he describes the sections of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” he loves, acting out the song’s final solo–it seems he could be a great stand-up comic if he weren’t so busy taking care of other people. But his caring and observation are what make his writing so fine.

The first thing I saw walking into the Chicago Actors Ensemble’s space for The Museum was a woman (Karen Hoyer) ten feet above the floor doing trapeze tricks on a five-foot-wide steel ring. She hangs by her knees, by her head, and by one flexed foot; she does arabesques, resting her weight on the bar under her hip. What she was doing was extraordinary; I kept studying her arms to see if they were quivering with the strain.

But the other exhibits at The Museum, a showcase for performance and visual artists, are not nearly as striking. A playlet in one corner competes with a video in another and a papermaking demonstration against the far wall. The audience is encouraged to wander from place to place.

The trick of an audience-participation event like this is to treat it like a party and get involved. I asked a woman who was dancing the tango to teach it to me. Soon I was teaching her to jitterbug. At our request, a demented accordionist tried to play “Chattanooga Choo Choo”; then she and two men broke into an a cappella version of the song, accompanied by one man on the kind of bell used at hotel counters. I had a wonderful time, and left my own offering at Constance Wilson’s Christian and Yoruba shrine before I left.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Dan Rest.