Chrysalis Project

at Cafe Voltaire

Kathe Burkhart’s poetry, prose, and visual art deal primarily with being an artist and a woman in an age author Susan Faludi has characterized as a “backlash,” where victories are dearly bought from a patriarchal society that claims enlightenment even while cosmetic surgery rises and rape abounds. Most of the usual issues are addressed: pregnancy, abuse, love, work, self-image. Burkhart’s poetry is straightforward but lyrical, and her prose verges on pragmatic. Her visual work looks like pop art with a message; for her “Liz Taylor Series” she has appropriated photographic stills from Taylor’s movies, enlarged and painted over them, and emblazoned across them epigrams such as “Piss on It” (over Taylor in the surf in Suddenly Last Summer) or “Cunt Teaser” (over Taylor kneeling before a lackadaisical James Dean).

The Chrysalis Project has now adapted some of Burkhart’s work for the stage (supplemented with additional writing by Laura Gannon, Joy Golish, Diane M. Honeyman, and RoiAnn Phillips) in what they describe as a “mixed-media performance . . . filled with music, slides, humor, pathos, anger, and ultimately triumph.” In the mixed-media department, the production fails utterly. Slides (some of them fuzzy) of Burkhart’s work are projected on a single small screen, apparently with very little thought about integrating them into the piece; and the slides, of course, lack the impact of the actual pieces themselves. Music consists mostly of K.D. Lang (a too-obvious choice) played during blackouts over Cafe Voltaire’s staticky sound system.

In Burkhart’s work there is certainly “humor, pathos, anger”; the problem is in theatricalizing it. As conceived by Mary Jo Tarullo and adapted and directed by Honeyman, this production makes a game try, but in the end it’s just over an hour of hit or miss.

A script leaves room for plenty of theatrical interpretation, but a poem or an essay suffers if it’s handled too much. The most successful pieces here are the shortest ones (few of them actually by Burkhart) that are presented as simply as possible. When an ensemble member steps onstage briefly to announce that she’ll “be postfeminist when there’s postpatriarchy,” there’s a moment of electric connection between her and the audience, unmarred by any need on her part to entertain us. Honeyman’s There’s a Murderer in My Closet, on the other hand, is a chilling catalog of possible lurkers in a single woman’s home, but played as a pattycake game between two actresses pretending to be children it comes off as precious. Likewise, Burkhart’s Honey You’ve Got the Dick is robbed of its power with a cheap sight gag in which a cucumber gets chopped up.

I have no doubt that the women of the ensemble feel strongly about their convictions. But when they put on terribly serious voices to tell us about them, I feel as if I’m being subjected to a public service announcement–suddenly I see actresses, not women. They are there to entertain the audience, as opposed to communicate with them. They might’ve done better just to read Burkhart’s work aloud.