Jeanette Welp and Carol Genetti

at Link’s Hall, August 26 and 27

Performance has always been the Switzerland of the arts, a neutral place welcoming exiles from all media, no questions asked–the genre’s greatest strength and most crippling weakness. On the one hand, performance has provided a comfortable place where Yves Klein could mock (and revel in) the mindless randomness of “action painting,” Spalding Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte could explore the limits of autobiography, and the early dadaists could develop their witty, intriguing assaults on dead and dying art forms. On the other hand, in recent years performance has become the genre of last resort for stand-ups and other out-of-work entertainers looking for a new market.

Jeanette Welp and Carol Genetti’s evening of performance, The Jeanette/Genetti Show: Don’t Misunderstand Molasses, fits nicely in the first tradition. But the tiresome Cirque du Psycho belongs squarely in the latter, less inventive category. And Buck and Tim Arubi’s sometimes daring, sometimes cloyingly safe Seven Levels of Love falls somewhere in between.

The Jeanette/Genetti Show is a variety show, an evening’s worth of disconnected performance bits–solos, duets, and group pieces. None is particularly profound or thought provoking, but all were performed in a genuinely charming, relaxed, off-the-cuff manner–a style not equally suited to all the sketches. The more humorous works in the show flourished, in large part because Welp and Genetti are so playful. But the more contemplative works–the long, visually stimulating dream sequence that ended the first act, for example–felt less like reflective pieces and more like failed humorous works in desperate need of more jokes.

The evening began with the show’s strongest, and funniest, sketch, “Much Match,” in which Welp and Genetti become “prizefighters” in order to comment on the subtle ways women use clothes, makeup, and body language–their weapons, as it were–to compete with other women. None of the ideas is particularly new or surprising, though Robert Metrick’s intentionally lackluster drag act is a hoot: he referees the bout in a knee-length dress that reveals his bony, hairy legs, in effect commenting on performers who use drag to comment on gender roles, an increasingly cliched device. Nothing in the bits that followed came close to equaling the humor or thematic unity of this first sketch, not even the final piece commenting on nuclear war and the inevitability of human aggression.

Following “Much Match” was Genetti’s beautiful but baffling “Tale Brace and Monkeying Around,” in which she intones seemingly random syllables in a haunting, well-trained voice, accompanied by Scott Marshall on the piano. This whimsical piece is certainly diverting, but if it’s meant to be anything more than a playful exercise, I don’t get it. Likewise for the dream sequence at the end of the first act. “In a Dream . . . My Closet,” adopting the surreal nonlinearity of dreams, includes many wonderful moments of visual whimsy created by several funny and beautiful props–a gigantic face outlined in aluminum and copper tubing, an enormous eye also outlined in tubing. Still, the overtly comic moments were what proved most memorable, as when Welp and Genetti wheeled these props (mounted on casters) to the edge of the stage and interacted with the audience, nibbling a little girl’s foot, whistling at a woman in a short dress.

The quality of the show markedly declined in the second half. In “Over Our Heads (or) Blue-Breasted Yellow-Billed Hardknocks,” Welp washes, Genetti irons, and both sing. Equally forgettable is a sweet, kind of funny bit, “American Gothic,” in which Welp sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” accompanied by video-game explosions and sirens.

The final piece, “Have Your Bomb and Eat It Too,” is a staged re-creation of a publicity photo from the late 40s or early 50s of two military men and a smartly dressed society woman posing by a giant cake shaped like a mushroom cloud. The bit starts out strong, as the photo shoot devolves into a slapstick food fight–a chillingly funny metaphor for the escalations of nuclear war. But the piece, which goes on way too long, ends with a whimper: a huge, clear plastic mushroom cloud is inflated then allowed to sway uncertainly in the room before the lights go down and, after a few moments of tense silence, Welp cues the audience with the words “The end.”


Buck and Tim Arubi

at Second City E.T.C., through September 2

With all its flaws, The Jeanette/Genetti Show was still far better than Buck and Tim Arubi’s “multimedia guerrilla theater” piece Seven Levels of Love. Written by the two of them, it has a promising premise: Buck Arubi plays various blue-collar losers and lowlifes–an aging alcoholic punk, a crack-addicted prostitute, a dull-witted store manager, a hopelessly egotistical stud, a hapless Generation X-er who spends his days killing and plucking chickens. His acting, directed by Tim Arubi, is astounding; he disappears so completely into each role that I didn’t at first realize that all the monologues were being played by the same actor.

Each character is introduced with a short video clip, shot by the Arubis in pseudo-cinema-verite style, in which the character is caught in the act of being himself. Thus we see an aimless day in the life of the aging alcoholic, his spat with the neighbor, his run-ins with the police, his fruitless search for an ex-girlfriend who’s avoiding him. Likewise we see in excruciating and bloody detail the soul-destroying daily routine of the chicken butcher. Each video is well filmed, well acted, and surprisingly compelling. By the time each clip ends, we feel we not only understand what makes the characters tick, we also understand why, despite their obvious (and laughable) foibles, they are worthy of at least some respect and consideration.

The video is so vivid that the live material that follows seems redundant. Yanked out of their video environments, the characters seem flatter, less human, more clownish. It doesn’t help that the introductory clips have strong if simple narratives while the live sequences consist of a few funny or jokey bits leading up to an obvious, not very funny punch line. All the live sequences in Seven Levels of Love could be cut and never missed. My suggestion to the Arubis: make more videos.


at Annoyance Theatre, through September 19

Though the hip, ironic name suggests an evening of postmodern vaudeville a la Bill Irwin, Tim E. Miller’s Cirque du Psycho is just an evening of middlebrow entertainment: a really good juggler, a fairly good magician, and a mildly funny stand-up in clown’s clothing. The show is nothing more than an old-fashioned nightclub act without a headlining singer or kick-ass comedian. Lasting barely an hour, it’s diverting enough (if a bit heavy on the dick jokes) but totally lacks the wit, intelligence, and self-conscious irony that make Penn and Teller more than magicians and Avner the Eccentric more than a clown. To make matters worse, many of the cultural references are left over from the mid-80s. One performer actually refers to the long-departed Larry Lujack and his sidekick “little Tommy.”

What really makes this evening of mild entertainment disheartening, however, is the fact that it premiered at Club Lower Links (it’s now moved to the Annoyance Theatre). The folks in Cirque du Psycho have about as much in common with the terrific artists who performed in the old Lower Links–Paula Killen, Cheryl Trykv, Matthew Owens–as the indoor golf course in the old CrossCurrents building has with the cabaret that flourished there in the mid-80s.

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