at Randolph Street Gallery, May 21 and 22

Remember Club Lower Links, the dark subterranean performance-art haven? Remember the interminable cabaret shows, the ones with act after act after act? Remember how the most fascinating thing about the place was that often a spectacular piece would be placed right next to something that could easily have been nothing more than a joke told in someone’s living room?

Sitting at Randolph Street Gallery last weekend, its performance space transformed into a cabaret complete with tables and candles, I couldn’t help but think of Lower Links. Not that the Links regulars on parade–Joan Jett Blakk, Gurlene Hussey, Cheryl Trykv, Paula Killen, Pat O’Donnell, and the dancing faeries–haven’t all grown more polished as performers. It’s just that at Seance, RSG’s opening salvo in this year’s “In Through the Out Door” series, the ghost of Lower Links seemed to dominate, for good and for bad.

Certainly one of the highlights of the evening was John Connors (no longer carrying that awful “Sinatra” middle name) singing an homage to the little basement room. And I won’t argue that putting all those Links regulars into the same lineup wasn’t nostalgic and occasionally fun. Blakk’s film bit as the ghost of former Supreme Florence Ballard was hilarious; Trykv’s story, although clearly unfinished, showed her remarkable growth as a writer; the dancing faeries were infinitely more together, more focused, than I’ve ever seen–and as a result, eminently more watchable.

If anything made this evening special in its own right, it was Steve Lefreniere’s exquisite video selection. Diverse, provocative, and funny, these videos provided desperately needed transitions. They also represented the one bit of originality, the one aspect of the show that didn’t hark back to Lower Links in its glory days.

Because the truth is that Links is tough to re-create. It was a genuine cabaret–the format not only allowed for improvisation and spontaneity, it demanded it. Being rude and in-your-face was not an attitude put on for Links, it was Links. The problem with Seance was that it was once-removed from that experience, and perhaps the effort to re-create it just showed too much, like badly stitched seams.

Consider, for example, the length of Seance–more than two hours without an intermission. At Links this kind of length didn’t matter much. People came and went as they wanted. But at RSG this was a drag: it was hot and uncomfortable, and it was impossible not to notice the traffic in and out of the space.

At Links, when a host droned on forever, it was somehow forgivable. At RSG, the between-act patter of Lawrence Steger, curator and host for Seance who often performed the same role at Links, was too insidery, too alienating. RSG needed the cooperation of the audience to create the illusion of a cabaret–as opposed to the real Links, where no illusion was necessary–and that required inclusion, not distancing.

At Links, the schedule changed often enough that if somebody didn’t show up, it was fine–somebody else would undoubtedly replace her. But when Steger announced at Seance that one performer wasn’t going to show (allegedly she was at Betty Ford, he joked lamely), then mockingly chastised another for turning up late, and still later declared that he was essentially killing time until a third got there, it was just plain irritating. (As it turned out, the last announcement was part of Killen’s act at the end of the evening–but by the time she popped up, several people had already left, including me.)

I loved and miss Links as much as anyone, but Seance was depressing, not enchanting, in its nostalgia. Links was a wonderful place at a wonderful time in our lives, but let’s move on.

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