John Jesurun

at Randolph Street Gallery, through October 22


Bill Wilkison

at Cafe Voltaire, through October 25

In the mid-1980s in New York, the Pyramid Club was the place to be–at least if dodging skinheads, gay bashers, and the occasional knife-wielding lunatic while catching the fringiest of the East Village’s fringe performance scene was your idea of a hip evening out (and it certainly was mine). Decorated in a cheery black-on-black color scheme, presided over by sexually ambiguous go-go creatures slurching atop the bar, the Pyramid on a typical night threw drag queens, hard-core punks, hustlers, and Wall Street bankers together into an explosive mixture. When someone slipped a hit of acid into my friend Tony’s bourbon one night–apparently the person didn’t like Tony’s magenta mohawk–and half a dozen people wanted to start roughing other people up, Tony decided to “make love, not war” and hopped up on the tiny stage, leading the overflow crowd in a three-hour dance extravaganza.

The Pyramid was a temple of confusion, where half the fun was trying to figure out who came in with whom, where they would go afterward, and what on earth these night animals might do during daylight hours. Everyone seemed to enjoy adding vapor to his or her personal cloud of mystery. It was the perfect place for multimedia artist John Jesurun to begin his theatrical career.

Trained as a sculptor at Yale in the 1970s, Jesurun spent a few years making experimental films, then improbably turned in a two-year stint as associate producer of The Dick Cavett Show. Finally he landed at the Pyramid in 1982 and began creating his first theater work, an episodic surrealist soap opera called Chang in a Void Moon, for which he won a Bessie award in 1985. Full of mysterious characters, confused and heady language, and preposterous, lurid story lines, Chang in a Void Moon seemed to draw its energy from the atmosphere of the Pyramid.

Through the years Jesurun has gained international acclaim as his work has become more and more technically and theatrically sophisticated, but some of that splendid old Pyramid bewilderment has always hung on. In many of his pieces he uses film and video not only to complicate his already convoluted narratives but to destabilize his audience’s sense of reality. In his 1986 Deep Sleep, for example, two 70-minute films were projected onto screens opposite each other; five onstage actors were caught in the middle. At one point the on-screen actors warn their live counterparts, “Do you see the machines? They’re the projectors. They are projecting you. . . . You must get off that roll of film so that when the film runs out you’ll be safe.” As Village Voice critic Michael Feingold commented, “The actors onstage are real and those onscreen aren’t. But when life runs out and the real people are gone, the film will still be here. So which is more real?”

Jesurun’s Slight Return, being given its world premiere at Randolph Street Gallery, is a sparse, technocratic nightmare, all the more frightening and hypnotic for its cool, indifferent beauty. A long, slender rectangular screen of translucent material is suspended just in front of the audience, while five mini video projectors mounted on silver tripods below it cast five trapezoids of light across its length. Several feet behind the screen, half visible in the gallery’s shadowy depths, stands an enormous, mottled off-white box, stretching almost to the ceiling, with only a few shiny gold rivets and some molding marking its unbroken surface. It could easily be mistaken for a tomb.

Suspended directly above the box is a video camera, pointing straight down, perhaps feeding one of the projectors lined up in front of the gossamer screen. Four other cameras must be hidden somewhere, and all are trained on this mysterious structure. The pristine stillness of the image, with only the occasional ripple of video interference, suggests an Orwellian world of disembodied, omnipresent surveillance.

The chilling silence is shattered as a woman’s frantic voice is heard over speakers. She doesn’t know where she is, she’s trapped in a dark place, and she wants to get out. At the same time, shadowy images begin to appear across the screen. Gradually these video images become more distinct, and a glow seems to emanate from inside the box. We can see on the five different screens a woman, now flooded with light, filmed from five different angles, who seems to pace madly within the austere confines of the enigmatic box, telling us–or whoever might be listening–that the surrounding area has been devastated and all government leaders have vanished.

The woman goes on and on for an hour in an almost unbroken, at times nearly delirious monologue, interrupted occasionally by the voices of her captors–or perhaps protectors–who seem equally at a loss to understand her predicament. She may be in a hotel suite, although everyone else in the hotel has been decimated. She may be in an insane asylum. We can’t even be certain that she is actually inside the box before us. All this might have been filmed months ago. As one of the voices astutely comments, “She’s in there, but not really.”

Clearly Jesurun does not want to place his performer in any specific theatrical reality; she doesn’t tell a single story but suggests a number of possible stories in which she might be caught up, all the while quoting dozens of seemingly irrelevant pop-song lyrics. Jesurun’s complicated text, handled with extraordinary facility by Kyle deCamp, is full of images of paranoia, decay, and hopelessness. Like the band of postapocalyptic vagabonds in Kenneth Patchen’s enigmatic novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight, deCamp wanders across an imaginary terrain searching for light.

Jesurun’s technical wizardry not only creates a visually stunning live cubist collage but cleverly comments upon the nature of reality and tragedy in our media-saturated world. The “real” event here is triply distanced from us, hidden from view, reduced to a television image, and split into five discontinuous parts. And the box is so heavily miked that the performer is audible only over the speakers, even though she’s apparently just a few feet away. She has no way to genuinely connect with her audience, no way to substantiate her presence. Indeed, she may not be there at all. When she “peers out” at us, she is only staring into the dark lens of a video camera. We watch her ordeal as if through simultaneous coverage by ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and CNN.

Jesurun has engineered everything in Slight Return to prevent his audience from making an emotional connection to the piece. Not only is the human performer divvied up into five helpings, but she performs most of her text with a mixture of petulance, belligerence, and fatigue, as though she’s been woken too early from a deep sleep. Likewise the voices on tape seem to be reading rather than acting. By making his piece generally flat, Jesurun mimics the news media’s “objective” stance, turning any and every tragedy into 30 seconds of well-edited videotape.

But perhaps Jesurun ultimately overstates his case. In distancing his audience from performers already distanced from their material, Jesurun effectively neutralizes the power of his work. Because so much of the piece focuses on deCamp’s predicament, in which she is allowed only a halfhearted investment, Slight Return ultimately seems flippant and self-satisfied, turning alienation into a fait accompli rather than an avenue for exploration. While Patchen’s nomads feel an overwhelming need to journey forth despite the apparent futility of their travels, Jesurun’s creations seem to lack the urgency that might make them more compelling in performance.

In his ridiculously low-tech one-man show (he unscrews bare light bulbs in the ceiling to supply the blackouts) Bill Wilkison also looks at the impossibility of having a genuine experience. Yet while Wilkison’s piece is as cryptic as Jesurun’s, He Can Amuse Himself for Hours (With No Intermission) packs a major emotional punch.

Standing awkwardly before his audience like an uncertain host, Wilkison explains that he has not spoken to his mother in two and a half years. She wrote something in a letter to him “that I couldn’t imagine one human being ever saying to another human being,” and since that time he has ceased all communication with her. But she continues to write to him–often more than once a week–and he’s simply been bringing the sealed letters to Cafe Voltaire, cracking their seals, and reading them, aloud, for the first time there.

Wilkison’s mother has the ability–shared by so many mothers–to go for the emotional jugular using the kitschiest of means. She sends a card picturing a bear caught in a downpour of red hearts, a downpour he hides from beneath an umbrella. She sends a cartoon in which Ziggy reviews his to-do list: “1) pick yourself up, 2) dust yourself off, and 3) start all over again.” It’s heartbreaking to watch Wilkison read these things, especially since he maintains a Letterman-esque sense of irony and contempt. When his mother, ever hopeful that her son might go into “legitimate” theater, asks, “Are you doing commercials yet?” Wilkison responds, “No, I’m reading your letters in a basement for money.”

Between reading his mother’s various correspondences, Wilkison performs stories about his childhood, all of which paint him as the pathetic loser. Seeming scripted and a bit stilted, these stories pale beside his mother’s unself-conscious pleadings and his own efforts to read her letters objectively. But Wilkison’s final story, in which someone is killed in his place, suddenly rips the boundaries off the performance, exposing the raw emotions that up to this point have been held in check under a smiling veneer. It’s not clear how all of Wilkison’s material fits together, but the sheer audacity of this work makes him a performer well worth watching.

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