Chris Sullivan

at N.A.M.E., April 16 and 17

Toward the end of Chris Sullivan’s solo performance piece, Bang on My Chest if You Think I’m Perfect, he becomes a mad scientist on the verge of completing his greatest experiment: interchanging his subject’s brain and heart. If the exchange is successful, the brain will be responsible for involuntary actions while the heart will govern cognition.

This image encapsulates Sullivan’s method in Bang on My Chest. He has culled a host of images from his unconscious, the “involuntary” part of his brain, and has used his heart to order them. We get childhood memories, therapy sessions, even an episode of “This Old Psyche” (“What have you got going here, Bob? Looks pretty complicated”). The result is a highly personal, deeply felt journey through the corridors of memory and desire.

In another artist’s hands, this piece might seem insufferably self-indulgent. But Sullivan spends as much time making fun of his own meager attempt at profundity as he does creating richly textured images. He adopts the persona of a naive, self-conscious, endlessly sweet bumbler, continually befuddled by his own modest theatrical means. He begins the piece dressed as the tin man from The Wizard of Oz, though his costume is clearly made of gray sweats and cardboard. This character has tin genitalia but, we learn, no anus (our first indication that we’re in for a psychology-heavy evening). Instead of an ax, he holds a drafter’s T square: without a heart, he must embrace the cold regularity of geometry. Before he can begin the show, however, someone has to oil his mouth so he can speak. Unfortunately, the only person around is the sound operator, who doesn’t have an oil can. All she can do is mime oiling his jaw halfheartedly.

This kind of self-deprecating humor runs throughout the evening. Everything in Bang on My Chest is hokey and overwrought. Sullivan uses a cheap plastic doll to double as a childhood self. The real Chris Sullivan, pretending to be a detached, self-serving therapist, instructs the Chris Sullivan doll to create a “psychic playground” with little figures in a Jungian sand tray. Unfortunately, the doll is either so devoid of imagination or so cynical about human contact that he can’t find any people he wants in his sandbox.

Sullivan encounters authority figures throughout the piece–mostly doctors and scientists–before whom he is obsequious and embarrassingly confessional. These specialists, in whose care he leaves his heart and memories, offer little but clinical observations and exorbitant bills. Yet these encounters are the only human contact the adult Sullivan has in the piece.

The childhood doll, on the other hand, tries to bond with the hobo figure, a ridiculous cartoon coot who uses bobcat urine for salve and delights in imagining that his body will someday decay into puppy food. But the hobo figure, who thinks of himself as “a tumbleweed,” cannot stay in one place for too long because he’s afraid people will find him. The Chris Sullivan doll ends up as his spectator rather than his friend.

A deep longing for intimacy runs through Bang on My Chest. Against this emotional backdrop, the piece’s absurd humor comes across as disarmingly tender, and even the most personal sections steer clear of self-pity and self-indulgence.

The only thing that detracts from the evening’s overall success is Sullivan’s deliberately low-tech approach. He sets up and breaks down each of his little playing areas himself, and changes into and out of the tin man costume onstage at least three times. While this informality is certainly in keeping with the spirit of Bang on My Chest, it drives wedges of dead space between episodes that should be connected. As a result the three story lines–the tin man’s search for a heart, the doll’s attempt to bond with someone, and the scientist’s attempt to create a new kind of human being–never quite come together but seem more and more disjointed as the evening progresses.