Chris Sullivan

at Randolph Street Gallery

January 27 and 28

Chris Sullivan is one of the most skilled performers I’ve ever seen, exploring a richly imagined universe of grotesque characters in a wholly idiosyncratic and disarmingly sincere performance style. Sullivan simply tells stories–or more accurately, tells stories about himself telling stories–but the anecdotes that he creates are packed with a psychological resonance, giving his seemingly inconsequential work unexpected profundity.

Cavalcades in Learning is a subtle, ingenious deconstruction of the myth of the long-suffering artist, who can produce serious work only by living in a state of constant misery. Of course Sullivan is this artist, but he has one problem. He’s happy. And nothing makes him happier than doing one of his performance pieces. Thus he must don the mantle of anguish in order to take himself seriously, but all the while he’s trying to convince himself of his own sincerity.

The onstage Sullivan, then, is an impostor of himself. Indeed, he is introduced in just this light. The piece begins with Sullivan “disguised” in a fake nose, crouched like a rodent on the front of the stage, explaining in an egregiously self-conscious character voice that Chris Sullivan has had a terrible accident, and his part will be played by an impostor. He then exits, and we overhear an “argument” between him and the “real” Chris Sullivan, who wants very much to perform his own piece. Sullivan then appears as himself, dressed in the struggling artist’s mandatory black suit and sporting crutches. He prays to God to be healed, tosses the crutches away triumphantly, crashes to the floor, and then reenters a moment later, again hobbling on the crutches and praying to be healed.

Everything here is wonderfully fake, especially Sullivan’s acting as he wrenches bogus emotions from a hackneyed text. He wants so desperately to appear tragic that he becomes completely ridiculous. The only real thing here is the collision of Sullivan’s body with the stage, which looks to be a source of real pain.

Cavalcades in Learning goes on to present a series of vignettes, all centered around Sullivan’s need to express some genuine emotion although he’s armed only with exhausted cliches. Sullivan recites a lot of bad poetry, even at one point smoking a cigarette–and adopting a raspy voice as if he were one of those embarrassingly sincere pseudobeatniks who abound at poetry readings. In another section Sullivan adopts the persona of poetry-spouting waiter; he waits on a tape recorder that plays back his own voice in an impersonation of the crankiest customer ever imagined. In a wrenchingly funny sequence from this section, Sullivan, dressed in cutout costumes of bees and flowers, performs an incomprehensible batch of “deep” poems, while the disembodied diner groans in anguish.

Sullivan makes himself out to be a pathetic loser in almost every scene. Nothing really works for him, including the technical support for his performance. To dim the lights, he must constantly run over to two rheostats mounted on the wall. To produce a lighting “effect,” he uses a red floodlight mounted in an aluminum clamp-on lamp. The look is totally cheesy.

Most pathetic about Sullivan’s persona is his inability to comprehend or interact with another human being. The only other “person” onstage is Monique, Sullivan’s childhood friend, whom he keeps pickled in a mason jar (all that can be clearly seen of her are her black patent Mary Janes).

He is even troubled by his own physical presence. As the piece progresses, instead of speaking of himself in the first person he uses a marionette (which of course he operates with complete incompetence) as his stand-in, manipulating and describing it. In a charming and quite moving scene, Sullivan makes his marionette walk–or more accurately this inept artist causes him to limp along an artificial street, trying to explain his loneliness to his absent father. The marionette’s speech is surprisingly sad, perhaps because he is an abstracted and highly stylized figure–ironically, acknowledging the scene’s artifice makes it seem more sincere. But as soon as I found myself empathizing with this puppet, Sullivan stepped into the scene like an ungainly giant to untangle a string or adjust a light, destroying the emotional reality. It is the puppeteer’s penchant for order and clarity that keeps his puppet from performing. It is the real Sullivan who prevents the fake Sullivan from expressing himself honestly.

It is finally the inability to express sorrow that gives this piece such poignant melancholy. And Sullivan’s endearing presence infuses even the most ludicrous moments with a sweet sadness. One of the most touching images occurred when Sullivan removed Monique from her mason jar and lay her life-size but grotesquely elongated body against his own, as if he were dancing quietly with a huge anchovy. For such a ridiculous image to retain some trace of haunting beauty is a testament to Sullivan’s skill as an artist.

Cavalcades in Learning was given a fully realized production in Randolph Street Gallery; Sullivan’s many painted canvases made up the set. Unfortunately the piece ran for only two days, which not only limited its audience but kept Sullivan from exploring his work more fully in performance. Many of the scenes seemed oddly unresolved, and the lack of a resolution seemed to have no significant end. Sullivan’s self-consciously clunky aesthetic–which required him to load tapes into a tape deck, for example, to produce mood music–was at times tedious. I hope Cavalcades will be given an extended run sometime soon so that Sullivan can tinker with some of these weaknesses.