Lawrence Steger

Rhino in Winter

at the Lunar Cabaret, through February 27

Happy Hour

Anne Van der Vort

Rhino in Winter

at the Lunar Cabaret, February 6, 13, and 16

By Justin Hayford

When Lawrence Steger first appeared in Chicago’s art world a decade ago, he was one of perhaps two dozen performance artists coaxing beauty out of bewilderment. In those days performance art was hard, glorious work for an audience, full of incongruous images, murky metaphors, and inexplicable gestures. Mining trends in critical theory, artists strove for performative dissonance; the text was rarely in tune with the action, the image routinely out of sync with the sound track. It was often difficult to say what was happening onstage since each element contradicted every other. The work was largely ridiculed by mainstream culture as pretentious and meaningless, and much of it was–but then, so was (and is) much of Broadway. What made performance art such thrilling aggravation was the way meaning seeped out from the cracks, inciting the imagination, then evaporated before conclusions could be reached.

Today the once derided role of performance artist has been co-opted by just about every monologuist, storyteller, and stand-up comedian who dabbles in evening-length solo work. Telling a slightly weird story in a slightly weird way is supposedly enough these days. Contradiction has been replaced by confession, cultural politics by personal psychology. And the “meaning” is usually stamped across the stage in capital letters. Like most elements of American culture, performance art has been dumbed down for a consumerist public that wants its art packaged as neatly as a Starbucks mocha grande.

In the current climate Steger is something of an anomaly: his work has increased in complexity as the years have passed, and as many of his colleagues from a decade ago have disappeared, he’s become more prolific. He’s always reveled in performative dissonance, right down to the persona he’s created for himself: a haughty, seductive, creepy impresario from the shadows. From his first Chicago piece in 1988, Rented Movies, to his recent faux-cinematic faux opera The Swans, Steger has remained mercurial, a redeemer and sociopath at once. And it is this unknowable persona who guides the audience through the rapidly changing fragments of Steger’s writing, encouraging us to doubt almost everything we see and hear.

Yet no piece of Steger’s has been so discordant, so contradictory, so fundamentally unknowable as Draft, now running at the Rhino in Winter festival. He calls it a work in progress–but if you know Steger’s performances, you know how foolish it is to trust the labels he offers. Is Draft anymore a work in progress than, say, The Swans, which was packed with intentionally missed cues, muffled lines, and impromptu disasters? When Steger stops Draft cold after two minutes and asks the tech guy to restart the first sound cue, is he up to his old tricks or admitting an honest mistake?

Because Steger is such a sly actor, it’s impossible to say. But I think he’s doing both: Draft is a tricky orchestration of honest mistakes with intentional omissions, oversights, approximations, and deletions. For an hour Steger describes the highlights of and performs excerpts from the piece he purports to be doing, as though the real, fleshed-out Draft were being performed simultaneously in a parallel universe. To begin the piece he climbs onto the Lunar Cabaret’s midnight blue stage and announces, “It’s a totally white room. No setbacks, no contradictions.” Soon he’s telling us what Draft would be like if he were performing it; there would be no microphone, only a few props and a nonstop sound track–a description that fits what we see happening onstage. Steger turns Draft into an imitation of itself, though there doesn’t seem to be an original Draft upon which it’s based.

Steger maintains this perplexing relationship to his audience and his performance for the entire hour. Sometimes he describes aspects of the piece that don’t exist; the characters, he tells us, are all “based on the media”–except there are no characters in Draft. At other times he describes the scene as it’s happening, detailing his every postural change, for example, as he sits in a chair. But he doesn’t want us to believe that the scene he’s describing is happening before our eyes–no, we’re meant to think it’s about to happen, or perhaps has already happened. It’s as though, even as the piece perpetually disappears, it never really appears at all.

Somewhere in the middle of Draft Steger drops a bombshell: his work is about Andrew Cunanan–or, in Steger’s typically elliptical argot, it “regards” Cunanan. He suggests that he’ll tell Cunanan’s story as a kind of AIDS revenge tragedy, “the all-American road trip with a twist.” Of course he never gets around to telling the tale, instead explaining that he’s worried someone has already written it. Maybe it was Steger himself. And maybe he forgot it. And then rewrote it. Verbatim.

Draft may sound like an impossibly frustrating evening, but after ten years of performance Steger knows how to spin enchantment from enigma. He does next to nothing during the piece, pacing back and forth onstage and talking, but like the audience he always seems to be puzzling through his own imagery–looking for associations, searching for connections, allowing the work’s ambiguity to drive it forward. He even interjects a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which hovers over the evening like the key to an unbreakable code. In essence Draft will always be a work in progress because it’s about the process of putting a piece together.

Steger’s flirtations with Cunanan’s legacy, however, keep Draft from remaining an academic exercise. Like Draft, Cunanan’s story seemed to be appearing and disappearing at once as it came to light last year, erasing itself as it went along: it seemed both explicitly directed and perpetually unfocused. And just as Draft evaporates into Steger’s protestations about what the piece might be or could be, negating what it is, so Cunanan the person vanished into a culturally ordained myth–the myth of the murderous gay call boy exacting revenge on the men who may have infected him with HIV. The fact that autopsy reports showed the real Cunanan to be HIV negative didn’t diminish the veracity of the mythic Cunanan. Cunanan, like Steger, is a draft of himself. The Cunanan we know is the Cunanan he might have been if he’d been made of newsprint.

Like Steger, Anne Van der Vort is a performer more intrigued with the potential for a story than with the story itself. But in Happy Hour, her first performance, she’s still searching for the kind of confidence it takes to own the stage for an evening. Her three snapshots of high society wobbling toward collapse–“The Terrorist of the Respectable,” “Frank,” and “She Climbs to Conquer”–run at a rather uniform pace, in part because she doesn’t yet trust her own acting enough to linger during her most vulnerable moments.

The strength she draws upon is her writing. Having been raised in a world of “money and mental illness,” she paints deft, ludicrous, poignant images of a privileged world bereft of moral and emotional bearings. In the strongest piece, “The Terrorist of the Respectable,” she takes us to her father’s ersatz hoedown–complete with a tractor wheel of beluga caviar atop a bale of hay–where the members of the Blanc de Blanc Country Club posture and preen like soulless peacocks. Into the party charges Pidge, a tennis wife in the midst of a nervous breakdown: she howls across the room as the other guests shift positions slightly and carry on unperturbed.

Like much of Van der Vort’s work, “Terrorist” is a story in which nothing happens, an image of a universe in which disruptions are impossible. As a writer, she lampoons without condemning the super rich, examining the victims of a value system that extols designer labels and stock portfolios and ignores human emotion. Now she needs to find a theatrical voice as vibrant as her literary one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Draft photo by Robert Blanchon; Happy Hour photo by Christopher Dimock.