James Grigsby

at Live Bait Theater

James Grigsby has the remarkable ability to lead his audience through a dense psychological maze, full of inexplicable confusions and unresolved ambiguities, and make that journey thoroughly entertaining. He is our guide on his tour of a twilight world where reason gives way to intuition, where understanding arises out of inspiration rather than logic. Grigsby gives our imaginations a thorough scrubbing.

Terminal Madness is a two-part evening consisting first of a film, Trust Me, and then of a live performance, Terminal Madness. Trust Me, the filmed adaptation of one of Grisby’s earlier performance pieces, The Appurtenances Attached Hereto, is a 17-minute miracle. Directed with consummate clarity and precision by Tom Finerty, Trust Me presents Grigsby in a wild array of surreal costumes, ruminating upon his uncertain relationship with the future. Dressed as a carnival barker, he tries to convince a hall full of bingo-playing women in outlandish hats that he can teach them how to predict the future. Later Grigsby is dressed in light blue unisex underwear, writhing uncomfortably against a luminous white wall; he laments to an absent Dr. Ruth that as a 37-year-old woman, he is washed up. “My breasts hang uselessly,” he says. “What can the future hold for me?”

The web that Grigsby and Finerty weave in this film is dizzyingly complex. The haunting, funky music, by Grigsby and Don Hedeker, adds to the film’s spell. Visual, musical, and textual themes appear and disappear until it becomes impossible to get one’s bearings. Is Grigsby supposed to be the same character throughout? When he describes a plane crash in the beginning of the film, is it the same crash alluded to two other times? Are all of these vignettes occurring at the same time, or are they perhaps separated by years?

Such carefully constructed ambiguities explode with meaning in a final, stunningly filmed sequence. Grigsby, in a black-and-white plaid suit, hands raised above his head, sways from the waist in circles, as if he were suspended underwater. At the same time, the platform he’s standing on spins, so that a carnival is seen whirling behind him. In the midst of these circular patterns, Grigsby says he sees himself both in the figure of his grandfather and in the figure of his son–the son who “boarded that fateful flight.” Past, present, and future are suddenly caught in a timeless suspension. Significantly, the future–embodied in the son who’s involved in a plane crash–is sensational, unreal, and dangerous–like the carnival in which the scene takes place.

Grigsby obviously doesn’t want you to walk away with a neat explanation but rather with potent questions, and Finerty’s direction helps create this answerless world by constantly truncating the viewer’s line of sight. Almost all of the film is shot indoors, in a dark, cavernous church; and Finerty makes sure that the walls, not the windows, are what we see. We are not allowed to get the big picture here. In dreamlike fashion, we can see only the images immediately before us, and can only wonder at the larger context that generated them.

Trust Me is a fascinating and richly evocative juxtaposition of image and text, and the perfect expression of Grigsby’s artistry. Film allows him the expanse and mobility often not available on a stage. And he could not have found a more talented collaborator than Finerty, who uses his camera to search out the most intriguing detail of every scene.

Given the constant and often hallucinogenic movement in Trust Me, Grigsby intelligently follows it with a live performance based on stasis. Grigsby, dressed in a wildly patterned black-and-white suit and walking on two-foot stilts, finds himself wandering about in a black-and-white cartoon garden (designed by David Csicsko). Confined to this lonely arena, the oddly proportioned figure clutches his Golden Treasury of World Knowledge. He is constantly attempting to get an overview–which is why, he admits, he decided to be taller in the first place.

It becomes obvious, though, that the world as this character sees it is hopelessly flat. He recites from several personal ads, in which people reduce themselves to impersonal statistics. He ruminates upon the Miss America pageant, hilariously reducing the women to evening gowns and swimsuits. And he talks a lot about painting–the consummate flat art form. In this literally flat world, where all the props are cutouts, this lonely man tends his two-dimensional garden and longs to see more than is apparent to him.

What makes this piece more than a trite flogging of the crassness of American culture is Grigsby’s thorough probing of the notions of flatness and roundness, a probing that confuses rather than distinguishes the two. After describing the Miss America pageant–in which well-rounded women become cardboard cutoutshe talks about early Italian Renaissance artist Giotto, who was responsible for the illusion that made painted figures “stand out from the background,” for making them “solid, rounded.” Artistic representations ate imagined to be more “real” than actual human beings. Then he tells the story of two people, A and B, are about to engage in sex. When A sees B naked, A sees B as a sculpture from the Italian Renaissance–even when confronted with the undeniable reality of the naked body, A finds the conventions of art necessary to comprehend it.

Grigsby is too insightful to merely lament the flatness he finds in his world. That flatness is at once useful–how else are we to know each other if not through categories?–and destructive, if we are unable to see beyond it. Grigsby’s summing up is deliciously ambiguous. But unfortunately he goes on to state what the piece has already made obvious–that there may be “a blackness and a whiteness” to the way we understand the world and ourselves.

Grigsby performs throughout with utter commitment. His focus is so intense, his concentration so great, that it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off him. And Grigsby’s humor illuminates his work, as we laugh at and with his melancholy character.

In fact his great skill as a performer made me a bit frustrated by his use of the stage. While his meandering made sense in context, I longed to see him use that meandering to a greater end, or at least to allow the quality of the meandering to evolve with the piece. Some of the time I felt he was wandering about the stage because he had nothing else to do and needed to put a space between segments. As a result, the segments all had equal weight, and the piece didn’t gather much momentum. But then, that sameness seemed an apt theatrical expression of the kind of flatness being explored.

Live Bait Theater could not have inaugurated its new space more successfully. Terminal Madness–funny, challenging, and deeply sad–confirms Grigsby’s place as one of the most talented theater in Chicago.