IF MEN COULD TALK, THE STORIES THEY COULD TELL
Randolph Street Gallery
In celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, Randolph Street Gallery is presenting a month long series entitled “In Through the Out Door,” nine evenings of performance, film, and video addressing “the fantasies and realities as well as the desires and discontents” of gays and lesbians. The series could not have gotten off to a better start than with Richard Elovich’s deeply felt performance piece If Men could Talk, the Stories They Could Tell. Elovich uses the simplest of tools–two chairs, a table, a sleeping bag, and a few small props–to create a richly layered evening full of delight, heartbreak, and passion.
Elovich plays all the characters in his one-man play. Danny Glick is a cartoon artist battling AIDS, which has already begun to impair his vision. He draws in an attempt to avoid his fears, which constantly threaten to overwhelm him–as he repeatedly states, “Nothing works faster than fear.” Elovich makes these fears highly idiosyncratic, which prevents Danny from becoming simply a stereotype or a statistic. Danny explains, for example, that he becomes very afraid when he saw an ad for a low-priced record set on television and couldn’t find a pencil to write down the phone number. but he also says he actively works to overcome his fears. He does this too in his own strange way; after the ad disappeared from the television he frantically masturbated into the sink.
Danny’s lover is Joseph Waxman, a high school microbiology teacher and AIDS clinic volunteer who waves his arms and snaps his fingers in a way that would make most queens look positively butch. Joseph’s “nervous condition” requires him to take medication to check his mannerisms, but he clearly understands why society placed that “‘requirement” on him. So during the week had takes his pills, but on the weekends he stops and seriously flames. Joseph volunteers at Dr. Seuss’s clinic, where Danny goes for treatment for his retinitis. Seuss, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells Danny long stories about the calculated yet irrational human extermination during the Holocaust.
Nothing much happens during If Men Could Talk. There’s no central conflict, no real story, nothing to get us from start to finish in a linear fashion. Yet Elovich holds us captive for the full hour and a half–partly because he is a genuinely engaging performer, partly because of the associations the anecdotes that make us the piece evoke. But these associations remain elusive and ambiguous, so we are constantly discovering new ways to thing about the material being presented.
The juxtaposition of the Nazi Holocaust and our government’s handling of the AIDS crisis is particularly powerful, though that association can sound absurdly paranoid when presented by someone less careful and intelligent than Elovich, who uses very specific images to contrast the cruelty that can arise only from a human agent with the random and impersonal quality of a virus. So Dr. Seuss dwells upon the sick and perverse precision of the concentration camps, with their neat lines of barracks, which house exactly so many prisoners, who are loaded onto this many trucks to be gassed in that many showers. In contrast, Suess says, there is no logic of any sort to the actions of a virus. Then Joseph draws a chilling parallel between the Nazis who manufactures numbers–reporting 1,000 children were gassed instead of 600–in order to create a reality to please the Fuhrer, and the tactics that are reportedly sometimes used in FDA experimental-AIDS-drugs trials: changing the data so the drug companies will be pleased with the results. All of which points to the fact that only a human being is capable of cruelty and evil.
Elovich also explores the psychological landscape, looking at the American family system that teaches men not to talk (Danny’s mother says to him, “Your father’s turned his head, and that means he loves you”), teaches women to “explain” the men away, and teaches everyone to pretend that everything is fine all the time. In one remarkable little story Danny’s mother takes him to a baron his birthday and demands happy-your prices, even though she has arrived a few minutes late. After triumphing,she turns to Danny and says with a cool smile, “It’s still happy hour. We can have everything we want.” It is this kind of simulated reality that makes Danny shout “May Day” while a family portrait is being taken.
Throughout the evening Elovich’s characters seem desperate to find a way of living that feels genuine to them. It becomes clear that Danny and Joseph have to invent their lives for themselves as gay men–since the dominant culture sees them in light of a disease. In fact Danny likes to think of Joseph and him as “outlaws”–a label, he points out, that is more exciting than “boyfriends” (the dominant culture provides no term for a mature male relationship) and less an imitation of the standard patriarchal system of gender roles.
Most impressive is that Elovich is wholly genuine onstage. His work is certainly familiar in style and content, but it seems quite personal. He is hardly “putting on a show” and never resorts to theatrical effects to make his piece look like a “regular play.” Rather, in a gentle and measured tone, he candidly speaks the words of his text, suggesting rather thankfully embodying Joseph’s flamboyance or Danny’s depression. Elovich remains in perfect control of his material–never once misspeaking or even tripping over a word–and he always graciously includes his audience. We know that we are in good hands, and we trust him to lead us through the darkest of stories.
Cecil MacKinnon’s direction is seemingly perfect in that it is hardly apparent. Nothing clutters up the evening, nothing gets in the way of hearing Elovich’s precious words. A less perceptive director might have tried to find a concept for this piece or a framing device to create some theatrical “reality.” None of that is necessary, because this piece is about honesty, about doing away with the facade and allowing the sincere gesture to shine through. And in that, the work is a complete success.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dona Ann McAdams.