The Swans

Lawrence Steger

at Randolph Street Gallery, through July 1

The 14th trump card in the modern tarot deck depicts the Angel of Temperance. She holds a gold cup, the conscious, in one hand and a silver cup, the unconscious, in the other. With an expression of utter serenity, she pours water from one cup to the other and back again for all eternity, without ever spilling a drop. While the demands of daily life may fool us into imagining that our conscious and unconscious waters must be kept strictly separate (lest we break into song during the annual shareholders’ convention or deliver kisses instead of rent checks to the landlord), the angel reminds us that emotional balance and strength–tempering–is found only in a subtle blending of the two.

Gilles de Rais, marshal of France in the 15th century–history’s notorious Bluebeard–and King Ludwig II, the “dream king” of late-19th- century Bavaria, probably would have benefited from the Angel of Temperance’s visitation. But unlike most of us in contemporary America, who could stand to let our irrational, impulsive, purely playful waters flow a little more often, Rais and Ludwig drank deeply from the silver chalice but left the gold one nearly untouched, if received notions of history are to be believed. Both men inherited enormous wealth at a young age–Rais received land stretching across four French provinces at age 11, and Ludwig assumed the throne at age 19–and spent their lives indulging their most extravagant (and, in Rais’ case, perverse) fantasies.

In some ways the two were unlike, however. Ludwig often dressed himself and his attendants in the costumes of King Louis XIV’s court, and he added an umbrella to his military uniform in order to keep his hair from getting blown out of place (“If I didn’t have my hair curled every day, I couldn’t enjoy my food,” he once said). He also regularly commanded private performances of Wagner’s most spectacular operas and built castles like they were going out of style (which of course they were). While Ludwig’s distaste for violence is legendary (on the day the Seven Weeks War began, he was found holed up in his chamber playing Barbarossa and Lohengrin with Prince Taxis), Rais’ thirst for blood was seemingly insatiable. He spent his mid-20s commanding and bankrolling Joan of Arc’s military campaigns. In later life, with a massive private army to serve and protect him, he routinely had village boys brought to his castle for the sole enjoyment of raping and murdering them. In one particularly sickening variation on this theme, he would instruct his assistants to begin strangling a boy, whereupon Rais would rush in and “rescue” him. Once Rais had gained the boy’s trust and affection, he would slit him open.

Like modern pornography fans, drug addicts, and Wall Street executives, Rais and Ludwig went to greater and greater lengths to keep their fantasies exciting, maintaining an artificial state of ecstasy. They became more and more secluded, barricading themselves in highly theatrical worlds of their own invention, until the ultrarational demands of the state bulldozed their way in, destroying their fantasies and ultimately taking their lives. Today we may dismiss the two as madmen, but the impulse to retreat into mystical, imaginary worlds remains compelling. Just look at our culture’s deification of Hollywood, which constructs multimillion-dollar fantasy worlds that evaporate in two or three hours (at least most of Ludwig’s castles still stand).

Chicago performance artist Lawrence Steger has long been fascinated by such escapes, particularly to imaginary places that, like Rais’ castle of horrors, offer the promise of sexual release. In his last two full-length solo pieces–Rented Movies, in 1988, and Worn Grooves, in 1990–he explored campy, seedy, ridiculous worlds of erotic costuming, sexual role-playing, and postcoital disillusionment. And in his boldly imaginative, thoroughly entertaining The Swans, based on the lives of Rais and Ludwig II, Steger fittingly pulls out all the stops: this deliciously decadent theatrical monstrosity comes complete with baroque stage machinery, sumptuous costumes, and a grand proscenium upon which supertitles are projected. But unlike the historical figures who inspired the piece, Steger erects a fantasy world only to watch it crumble, booby-trapping it to ensure its self-destruction.

Steger–who wrote, directed, and performs in The Swans–seems mesmerized by the lengths to which Rais and Ludwig II would go to sustain ecstasy, and his creepily seductive alter ego rivals their desperate self-indulgence. Steger presents himself as a haughty, tyrannical auteur, unwilling to let any moment pass without telling the audience exactly what is happening onstage; he will leave nothing to chance. In fact, even before the piece begins, a supertitle appears that reads: “These are the supertitles.” Then Steger enters the darkened gallery, emerging from a puff of smoke, followed by his fellow cast members, Laura Dame and Douglas Grew. They stand in a line while Robert Coddington’s ultra-hip techno-industrial music surges, but only Steger gets to speak. Dressed completely in black, wearing heavy black eye makeup, white-haired, looking for all the world like Lou Reed during his Transformer days, Steger tosses his head back and purrs into a microphone in a magnificent mockery of his own self-importance, “This is a performance called…The Swans.”

From there Steger puts Dame and Grew through scenes in which he invariably gets to play the best part (King Ludwig, of course). He insists they continue scenes they profess not to understand, interrogates Dame about her character, and interrupts whenever his actors veer from the sacrosanct script, even correcting Grew when he says “the” instead of “this.” When Dame questions the script’s historical accuracy, Steger snaps, “Poetic license. Wrap yourself around it.” When his actors or his decidedly low-tech performance space simply aren’t up to his grand vision, he describes in intricate detail the elaborate, cinematic scene he wishes he could put onstage, just as the real Ludwig dreamed of building more castles and theaters than his treasury could possibly afford.

Steger makes a perfect fool of himself, for his “grand vision” is intentionally dreadful. His “acting” as Ludwig is completely inadequate, as though he can’t be bothered to have a real emotion. He repeatedly leaves his cast with almost nothing to do, placing himself at his command post downstage and reading all the best lines from his script into a microphone. His one big special effect is brilliantly bad: to duplicate moonlight during a ride in a “cockle- shell boat,” he’s rigged a bottle of Evian water to a motorized cable system that keeps the bottle spinning and placed it in front of a blue filtered light.

Like so many Chicago performers who delight in schlock, Steger adopts a tastelessness that creates a kind of ecstasy in spite of itself; it’s so perfectly awful, so ingeniously banal, that it becomes sublime. As always, Steger demonstrates his theatrical sophistication, keeping his carefully structured, gorgeously designed piece always on the brink of collapse. And it is precisely the constant threat of breakdown that gives The Swans a kind of breathless euphoria; all this beauty, humor, and intelligence seem to balance on a pin.

The central crisis–as in the lives of Rais and Ludwig–is the impossibility of sustaining such ecstasy. Rais and Ludwig at least had the money, but Steger doesn’t even have a budget like Robert Wilson, whose sweeping, operatic performances–often, like The Swans, based on the lives of historical figures–maintain a hallucinogenic intensity for hours. Steger’s few lighting options, cutout scenery, and bottled water just can’t compare. So instead he elevates the mundane and hackneyed, pushing theatrical cliches to their breaking points. Like Rais and Ludwig, Steger must construct ever more elaborate containers for his ecstatic impulses. And as the piece grows in intricacy, it falls to glorious ruin that much faster.

The 14th tarot trump is also the artist’s card, for the Angel of Temperance duplicates the creative act. She pours the murky musings of the unconscious into the rigid confines of consciousness, just as an artist transforms an artistic surge into a work of art. The angel never spills a drop, and great artists supposedly capture their elusive visions in perfect detail on canvas, in bronze, or on the page. In these terms Rais and Ludwig were successful artists, for they made their dreams manifest in minute detail; they filled their cups over and over again.

The Swans, on the other hand, is centrally concerned with spillage, with fantasies that overflow their containers and swiftly trickle away: the piece cleverly opens with the anecdote that Ludwig once demanded a theater be literally flooded during a storm scene, and ends with Steger dumping a glass of water as he exits. The inflexibility of the actual–nothing onstage can ever adequately contain Steger’s vision–is what gives the piece great humor and rich sadness. After all, no matter how pompous and despotic Steger makes himself out to be, he only wants to create something beautiful for us, and his assistants seem only too eager to help. The Swans is a loving testament to inadequacy, to unrealistic dreams that can never fully take shape.

The Swans cannot come to fruition despite (or perhaps because of) the artist’s relentless drive. As the piece progresses and Steger “works harder” to theatricalize his vision, the various performative elements–narrative, image, character–begin to separate like spoiling milk. The piece loses all cohesion in what should be its epiphanic scene, in which Rais’ alchemist conjures demons and finds himself hurled violently around the room. Steger reads from an absurdly overblown screenplay describing the scene he’d like to appear onstage–including a camera shot that swoops in over the heads of the audience. But Grew, playing the alchemist, obviously can’t fly around the stage or swoop over the audience’s heads; instead he simply hangs motionless from a harness center stage. Meanwhile, on a video screen, we see someone applying fake wounds to Grew’s bare chest, wounds that pathetically substitute for those Steger describes in his screenplay. It’s as if the theater has sprung three enormous leaks, and the story, the character, and the image rush madly in three different directions.

It is precisely at this moment–only about 40 minutes into the piece–that Steger brilliantly throws The Swans away. Stagehands appear and begin to dismantle the set. Steger removes his velvet Ludwig cape and stands awkwardly center stage, telling us sheepishly, “There were a lot more scenes that were a lot more…explanatory.” Without warning, his highly imaginative and seductive world evaporates, leaving behind only a few meager promises of what might have been. This is a moment of truly transcendent theatricality, for The Swans, like ecstasy, simply cannot sustain itself. We may ache at having something so beautiful taken from us before it has fully bloomed, and in so doing we live through the theme of the piece in a truly visceral way.

Rais was burned at the stake at age 36. King Ludwig II was forced from his throne and found dead three days later at age 41. Premature death enhances their legends. In the same way, the untimely, unexpected demise of The Swans, cut short after only 45 minutes of life, adds to its mystery. Paradoxically the piece succeeds because, like all great moments of passion, it falls so desperately short.

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