at the Goodman Theatre Studio

April 11-16

Performance artists often say that their works violate genre expectations–just relax and enjoy it, they advise, don’t try to put it in a box. Sure enough, the five artists of P.S. 122 Field Trips, a traveling performance-art variety show from New York City, are described in the program as “combining and testing the limits of traditional art disciplines.”

I can understand doing it; what I can’t understand is why certain artists behave as if it’s never been done before. Artists worth their salt, particularly in this century, push boundaries; that’s just a given. But the act of testing formal boundaries does not in itself make an artist good. It’s rarely radical form that offends or excites–it’s radical content. The artists of Field Trips attempt a radical content of sorts, by creating onstage personas that are solipsistic, ironic, and vaguely infantile. But Samuel Beckett did that 50 years ago.

The need to establish a persona fits nicely with the old-fashioned variety-show theme of Field Trips (its producer compares it not only to vaudeville but to the Ed Sullivan Show). The variety-show act is a little like the toddler who shouts “Look at me!” and proceeds to perform a little jig or a song: he has to be cute; talent is secondary. But the adult vaudevillian isn’t likely to be so unself-conscious–chances are he or she will come up with a persona, which is probably based on some aspects of his or her actual personality.

But how do you concoct a likable persona in our skeptical age? Danny Mydlack gives the most direct answer in his piece, “A Danny Sampler.” This accordionist/singer/comedian is so self-consciously self-conscious that he comes across as both cutting-edge hip and a throwback to earlier forms–he’s a Jimmy Stewart who stammers and blushes, watches himself stammering and blushing, and stammers and blushes some more. I don’t doubt for a minute that there’s something naive and a little square about the real Danny Mydlack, but when the onstage Danny removes his shirt to make an easel of his own chest (he covers it with shaving cream), his little smiling grimace of modesty–“I have to do this for my art”–is pure camp. Ditto for Mydlack’s opening pose, hands clasped ingratiatingly in front of him in the manner of a damp-palmed minister. If Letterman ever decides to retire, Mydlack could replace him as the king of irony.

Mydlack’s sketches focus on childhood, his own and other people’s: a story about the artist returning to his childhood home, a skit that vindicates a child insulted by his mother (she called him a bubblehead), the story of a child who likes to draw. His persona is childish, someone who thinks that singing with a paper bag over his head is hilarious. And occasionally that combination of a child’s brashness and ingenuity works–as in the bubblehead sketch, when Danny uses a hair dryer to blow up a plastic bag fastened over his head. You can just barely see his own head and face inside the “bubble,” floating like a nearly unidentifiable object.

But too often Mydlack’s focus on himself–in the program he says he’s his “own multimedia lab experiment”–is too relentless. While Danny’s telling the story about the kid who likes to draw, he illustrates the story by drawing on his shaving-cream-covered chest: people, houses, jet fighters, and stars and planets. There’s complete identification between the kid and Danny, reinforced by Mydlack’s childlike persona, and the viewer is apt to think, Enough already. You’re cute, but you’re not that cute. (Mydlack apparently tries to undercut this response in his closing song, which says in part I don’t care if you don’t like me. I’m having fun.)

Ann Carlson, a dancer/performance artist, presented two excerpts from two different series: “Middle Child” from “Real People” and “Sarah” from her “Animal” series. “Middle Child” starts with a report by the ditsy performer–a middle child herself?–on the way birth order affects personality. (Carlson is so apologetic about introducing this bit of pop psychology I thought she must be making fun of it; but as the piece went on it seemed she was relying on birth-order ideas too much to be able to ridicule them.) Then she launches into a description of her favorite TV programs as a child, and we’re invited to watch them with her as they’re projected on one wall (nothing ever appears there).

Carlson’s persona in “Middle Child” seems out of touch with reality–she asks the audience to stand up, we don’t, and she behaves as if we have. But you’re not sure whether it’s because she’s so solipsistic, or because as the “middle child” she’s covering up for our embarrassing lack of cooperation. Either way, this highly socialized character, who wears a rhinestone tiara and white 50s-style prom dress, does come across as sort of charming. But Carlson’s approach to pop culture–pop psychology and TV–seems alternately deeply ironic and almost fawning, reminding me once again of the patented Letterman mix of irony and veneration; it’s too expected, too hip, to be either very new or enjoyable.

One thing Carlson does magnificently is switch instantaneously from social behavior to movement or speech that seems to come from another planet. In “Middle Child,” her persona shifts periodically from a perfectly ordinary woman gesturing in a perfectly ordinary way to, I don’t know, an epileptic automaton, shaking her head no and then flinging her head back and arms up. In “Sarah,” Carlson impersonates a whale, shifting in midphrase from singing to little twitters and squeaks and bubble blowings. It’s remarkable, but I’m not sure what the point was. It’s supposed to show how a whale is like a woman, but as I watched I was struck by how dissimilar women and whales are; only on later reflection did the whale’s graceful bulk and sly shyness seem evocative.

Ishmael Houston-Jones is a dancer whose two works for Field Trips focus on death: “DEAD” is funny, and the solo from “The End of Everything,” which seems to be a parable about AIDS, is not. “DEAD” has an elegantly simple premise: the names of dead people–some famous, some not–are read in voice-over, and as each name is read Houston-Jones falls to the floor, then gets up for the next name. Occasionally he throws in some fleeting gesture as he falls that captures something about the dead person’s life or death. Joe Louis hits himself; Jack Benny crosses his arms in their trademark position; Charlie Chaplin dies with his feet splayed; Natalie Wood paddles her hands before she goes under.

“DEAD” is funny, but it’s also horrifying. The most tiring feat for dancers is not leaping but getting up from the floor, and Houston-Jones begins to show the strain. It’s a moving evocation of human limits: death is infinite, or nearly so–the tape could go on forever–and man is finite. Moreover as Houston-Jones ages this will be a piece that when performed will mark his own approach to death. But wouldn’t you know it, “DEAD” has its own self-centeredness: it was created in 1981 to celebrate Houston-Jones’s 30th birthday, and the catalog was restricted to people who had died during his own lifetime.

The music of violinist Guy Yarden and a short film, “Footsie,” by Pat Oleszko rounded out the evening. “Footsie” essentially records the old childhood game of pretending your index and middle fingers are legs, but Oleszko outfits her “star” in tiny anklets and Mary Janes. “Footsie” does have an element of visual shock–the star has too many knees, and of course she’s always out of scale with her environment–but it’s a childish joke that can barely sustain a film even this short.

The search for a persona, the return to childhood as a source, the heavy irony, the lack of historical perspective in Field Trips all seem relentlessly young. Only Guy Yarden makes an effort to entertain without forcing anything overtly personal on the audience–in fact, he consistently withdraws from the audience, but his music, his art, reaches out. Electronically manipulating his violin, he occasionally produces an amplified screeching that’s like an assault, but I found his work to be the most communicative and gentle of the evening. In the first part of “A Place of Forgetting,” his playing brings the babble of recorded voices that opens it into a sad harmony. And at the close of the second part, after he’s walked off, the sounds from his black box are still washing and billowing over the stage (modern life allows us to be there even when we’re not there–witness the answering machine). But when it quits, you hear Yarden again, playing melodically on an offstage piano–toying with the idea of the artist’s presence onstage, and making us see that this artist is as human as he is contemporary.