at Club Lower Links

June 12 and 13, 19 and 20, and 26 and 27

Iris Moore, with her multilayered texts, and Lawrence Steger, with his eerie dramatic persona, have carved out reputations as consistently provocative performance artists. In “Rough Trade,” a three-week collaboration at Club Lower Links, the two come together not merely as artistic conspirators, but as poltergeists in each other’s work. The end product is dark, haunting, and nearly genius.

To get the full effect of “Rough Trade,” you have to see both the Friday and Saturday shows. On Friday Steger performs his own Bliss, and then Moore does her The Illusion of Conspiracy. On Saturday, however, Moore inhabits Steger’s work, and Steger takes on Moore’s. The result isn’t merely gender bending, it’s transgressive.

Consider the opening of Bliss, a lip-synched dance to Yoko Ono’s “Open Your Mind.” In Steger’s hands it’s a languid lament. His face, which can be simultaneously cadaverous and clownlike, twists and contorts. His easy, fluid movements seem to beg the audience to join him. The effect is surreal, otherworldly, yet still friendly. But Moore’s interpretation of the same number is more labored–it seems self-directed, a mantra. Her face nearly covered by her long blond hair, Moore’s on her own out there, a survivor from some terrible accident or journey. Hysteria seems right below the surface, and it’s downright painful to watch.

These kinds of subtle shifts in meaning occur over and over again. In Bliss’s “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” an excerpt from an essay by Albert Camus, Steger comfortably wears a jacket and cravat while mixing a martini, giving him instant authority. He may be neither a victim nor an executioner, but as a man in a kind of native dress he’s in charge. Moore–lost in the jacket, which seems loose and more of a costume on her frame–is an impostor. Whatever route she took to get to the point of power, crimes were committed.

“The cause and effect are not reversed–one is merely eliminated,” they each say. “You will retain no rights. I will become the vanquished in the past tense only. I will become the only. I win! Ha!” When Steger says this, he’s merely reasserting control. Moore’s denying reality.

Later in Steger’s Bliss each artist recites from “An Open Letter” from George Jackson’s Soledad Brother: “The prisoner must use the very language, the words, the syntax of his enemy, whereas he craves a separate language belonging only to his people. It is perhaps a new source of anguish for me to realize that if I write something beautiful, pretty, it is in my enemy’s language. It is his language that is enriched.”

This is of course the coda. Nothing can be utterly possessed. And, paradoxically, nothing can be completely shed. In this case the cultural baggage that drags behind Steger as a man leaves him at a disadvantage. When Moore takes this role, she’s far more dangerous than he can ever be, if for no other reason than that women are rarely allowed this kind of power.

But when Steger takes on Moore’s role in The Illusion of Conspiracy and appears onstage in her long black dress and red lipstick, he’s burdened by our camp and drag expectations. Because of this the danger of Moore’s work is diffused.

Imagine Moore, with her icy sarcasm, saying this: “You say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been around the block, but I’m back now. So you can talk to me like a normal person.’ Well, I’ve been around the block–I’ve been down the whole street–and I’m not coming back. But then, my corruption is not in the same league as yours.” In her mouth these words project images of madness and institutions, of survival by the skin of our teeth. They’re dark and forbidding. When Steger takes on this piece, the images are less threatening. He’s already abdicated authority, up there in those high heels. Is he talking about sex? Is he talking about all of the things he’s done to his body to get it into that tight bodice? The images are immediate–we can’t get away from the sight of his very male body in that very feminine getup.

Consider this bit: “Even my sexual interest in women had always been of the most respectable order; long morose silences fostered the impression of me as a thoughtful, careful woman. It was after a minor surgical procedure that I changed.” When Moore recites this, we look for scars on her forehead and temples. We worry about science. We know whatever happened was not her decision. We feel our own precarious hold on reality. When Steger takes over, we want to look under his dress. We wonder why he would choose the procedure, whatever it was. We feel smug and secure in our own bodies.

“I have the scarred body of one who has cultivated and harvested her own flesh,” they take turns saying. But we know Moore is telling us she survived. The invention of herself is one of necessity; Steger’s is one of desire, of a weird kind of triumph. When Moore says “Let the carnage begin!” we anticipate murder, real blood, revenge. When Steger says it, we know there’s a safe word somewhere in the language that will stop the scene. This may be kind of rough play, but it’s still just play.

In “Rough Trade” Moore is awesome, Steger is excellent. Both have a luminous, commanding quality. As writers both are at a critical point. Moore’s more focused than ever. Her finger’s on a trigger and it’s itchy. Steger is considering flight of some sort. He’s flexing, feeling his muscles. What they bring to “Rough Trade”–besides sheer intelligence–is an unusual and sobering courage.

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