at Club Lower Links

March 11

At first I thought John Liebrand was kidding–I thought his show was a parody of performance art. There he was, tripping over props, stalking the stage like a maniac, losing the script and scrambling all over the floor for it, his arms outstretched like a needy simian.

Then I realized Liebrand’s haphazard approach wasn’t scripted; he really was a mess. His lack of focus wasn’t part of a performing persona but a genuine reflection of the state of things. This was no critique of bad performance art; this was bad performance art.

Liebrand established his scorn toward the audience early on. After asking an audience member to play a “trust” game with him in which they took turns falling back and being caught by the other, Liebrand refused to stop falling. Every time the poor guy from the audience caught him, Liebrand would shout “Again!” and fall all over. This happened not once or twice but more than a dozen times. At first the guy catching him was amused, but it was clear toward the end that he was actually scared.

Working on a stage crowded with props–a washbasin, a gun, a bottle of “poison,” a helium tank, a box of bacon, towels, etc–Liebrand claimed to have a message. “I do have something to say, and it doesn’t suck,” he insisted. “And, for performance art at least, it’s ranked way up there.”

Unfortunately, Liebrand’s message–whatever the hell it was–never got through. And the arrogance of dismissing the genre he’s working in while simultaneously claiming he’s at the top of the heap fell somewhere between stupid and unbelievable. The few people in the audience kept stealing incredulous glances at each other. When Liebrand sought audience participation, only a few guys helped out–and only after much pathetic pleading. At one point Liebrand went to every single woman in the house for help, and each recoiled.

Interestingly, Liebrand was actually working off some ideas, but he tended to exploit rather than explore them. Proposing that celebrity is a fiction, he told us of his quest to demystify the cult of Macaulay Culkin, the young hero of Home Alone. “Mac is no more real than Bart Simpson,” he said, meanwhile beating up on a dummy representing the boy actor.

Liebrand explained how, during a recent convention, he’d photocopied thousands of fliers (this was also the first of several times he threw dozens of fliers into the audience) inviting kids to meet Culkin. His plan was to explain, after hundreds of kids showed up, that celebrity is a capitalist tool. The plan fizzled when the hotel hosting the convention wouldn’t allow the fliers to be distributed. “My desire to disappoint these children was motivated by altruism,” he said. According to his thinking, deconstructing celebrity is the equivalent of telling the truth.

While all this conceptual setup was going on, Liebrand was running obsessively back and forth to and from the helium tank. Using the helium to alter his voice, he’d take on the persona of Culkin. Then, using his normal voice, he’d pretend to be Culkin’s father, producing a running dialogue in which Culkin pleaded for diversity in his movie roles while his father encouraged safe celebrity. During the argument Culkin told his father he wanted to play an assassin who kills President Bush. “I want to be universally admired,” he said.

Believe it or not, all this sounds better on paper than it played. Liebrand never stayed in character during this exchange, and most of the time he was breathless and unintelligible. The helium took effect only about half the time. And the noise of his running to and from the tank tended to distract from the text. Moreover, he spent almost as much time looking for the script as he did reading from it. In his mania he kept tossing the pages around, forcing the audience to sit and wait while he sifted through the pages to find his place. The possibility that he was going to have an accident onstage–he was constantly getting caught in ropes and towels, or losing his balance at the edge of the small space–was nerve-racking.

About midway through the show, without offering the slightest hint of fruition or resolution to the celebrity-debunking idea, Liebrand shifted gears entirely. “If you don’t like [the show], you can chop my head off with this ax,” he said, and produced an ax.

Miraculously, no one responded–in fact, as he proceeded to set up a “trial” to judge his artistic efforts, the audience became even less receptive. This proved disastrous, since the rest of Liebrand’s program relied almost entirely on audience participation. “Do you want reality or escape?” he asked, pleading with the audience to help resolve the script. “Serious or frivolous? Lurid or tragic?” Finally, audience members began to participate, seemingly just to get the whole thing over with.