Industrial Theater

at Chicago Filmmakers

Justin Hayford’s Just the Thought of You is a performance/theater piece filled with good intentions–it wants to be clever, deep, meaningful, and touching. But I’m not sure that Hayford, a regular contributor to the Reader, is sure of his own message. As a result, while the piece has its moments of delight, it lacks both vision and a moral center.

A sequel to a previous Hayford piece called From This Moment On: A Tale of Love and Exhaustion, the current performance is described on the front of the program as being about “forced utterance and prosthetic love.” But what, you might ask, does that mean? Love of prosthetics? Love by prosthetics? And just what does Hayford mean by “prosthetic” anyway?

It’s probably best not to ask those kinds of questions. Hayford has taken care to render them moot. In an interview last year, Hayford said of his approach: “We start with an abstract idea and then try to concretize and hyperliteralize it onstage. That makes the image very, very specific. That in turn allows an audience member to extrapolate personally from the image. What’s important about the images is what associations they set off in our heads–how they mean is more important than what they mean.”

In this context, it doesn’t really matter what “prosthetic” means, because how it means whatever it means is much more critical. And how it sounds–clever, hip–I suspect might be even more important.

So how does Hayford approach his story, ostensibly about “a lonely man, who carries his universe in the pockets of his perfectly tailored suit, as he attempts to forge a meaningful relationship with a dime-store mannequin”? Well, he concretizes and hyperliteralizes it. The perfectly tailored man (Hayford, in a splendid physical performance) begins with his toilette: shaving, moussing, cosmeticizing. Hayford uses highly stylized gestures–including wonderful twitches, hiccups, and jerks–to underscore the man’s insecurity about his elegant, hypermasculine image.

The man’s final touch is to put on a pair of white women’s pumps, an image carried over from From This Moment On. The pumps may be a feminization of the man intended to give him a “softer” side, or an Achilles’ heel–it’s hard to say. Whatever metaphoric purpose they serve, putting the pumps on is frustrating and scary for the audience as well as the man: they give him a precarious, too-obviously-symbolic lack of balance. Finally he manages, after some Chaplinesque posturings, not only to walk in them but to strut.

The romance with the mannequin is just that. She’s a silver, featureless creature, open armed, open legged, impaled on a steel bar for balance, naked but for a pair of long lace gloves and a red handkerchief draped over her head. The man, entranced, takes the handkerchief, elaborately celebrates it, folds it, and tucks it into his vest pocket–right there over his heart.

Hayford does not speak at all during Just the Thought of You; we hear occasional Frank Sinatra songs on a background tape and certain phrases in loops. “Hey, baby, what’s up?” plays repeatedly at the beginning of the courtship dance. “You’re pretty cute” is the only variation; then as the scene shifts and progresses, other cheeky phrases take their turns on the loop.

Ostensibly it’s the mannequin who utters these phrases, though her “talking” is triggered by the man, who wields a remote-control device like a magic wand. He turns her on for approbation, allowing her to surprise him with slight variations on stock phrases–for example, “How about a cracker?” becomes “How about a kiss?”

Eventually the possibilities of the kiss totally screw up the program, and the man–further feminized with bright red lipstick–can’t make the remote control work the way it used to. Somehow he assumes that she acquiesces, and they “consummate” their courtship in a bizarre scene of gentle dismembering. When she asks him if he thinks it’s funny, he freaks out and gags her. Next thing we know, the guy’s a mess–brokenhearted, regurgitating, his hair on end, his pockets full of sand.

Is this piece then about false love? About artificial desire? About “prosthetic” needs? About the futility of questioning our desperate human urge to couple? Or is it possibly about the stranger in our bed, the stranger who may in fact be us?

Part of the problem with the questions is that once you’ve accepted Hayford’s premise that there is indeed meaning here, you can’t really get to the how without dealing with the what, and the what is overwhelming.

Hayford’s sensitive performance does not compensate for the political implications of his iconography. The use of a living, breathing male and stiff female mannequin can’t be seen as accidental or without history: it’s impossible for the audience not to see this as an archetype of feminist discussion on male desire. Yet Hayford doesn’t deal with that, so we can only assume he doesn’t see it himself, or he doesn’t care.

Whether it’s her voice on the sound loop or not, it’s the man who’s talking: we don’t know whether she has anything to say or not unless he presses the button. Everything is part of his design, his own fantasy. It’s all about him; she could be a television set, a car radiator, a blank book.

So is that the point, is it all about him and his desire? Perhaps, but then why does he dismember her so romantically? And why, since he’s chosen a mannequin as love object, is he pictured as a victim at the end? No matter how poetically or tenderly performed, dismemberment is still, no matter how you slice it, dismemberment. That she’s dismembered makes it virtually impossible to see him as the victim of love–of any kind of love, prosthetic or otherwise.

Hayford wants us to know he is capable of great depth of feeling–and there is plenty of agony here–but the sexism of the male/female premise gets in the way. I suspect that if the situation were between two men, Hayford would not have dismembered a male mannequin. And that he might have gone beyond the melodrama and broad stagings, that there might have been a little less theatrical crying and a little more real feeling, a little less egocentrism and a little more compassion.

As it stands, Just the Thought of You is admirable for its direction and art direction and for Hayford’s stamina during the hour-long performance, but ultimately I was not sympathetic to the situation, intellectually engaged, or touched. And because it’s so deadly serious, despite a few inspired laughs, it doesn’t give itself the option of being merely entertaining.