Michael Kearns

at Circle Theatre

December 6

When Rock Hudson died of AIDS, in 1985, the media interviewed actor Michael Kearns, in part because he was one of the few openly gay actors in Hollywood. Ironically Kearns’s own history had intersected with Hudson’s by chance in a bathhouse some time earlier, and in 1989 Kearns was diagnosed as HIV positive himself. He wonders aloud in his performance Rock if he got the virus from Hudson, but concludes that at this point it doesn’t really matter. Just as Rock Hudson was the first well-known sacrificial lamb for AIDS awareness toward the end of this century, Oscar Wilde was the first sacrificial lamb for homosexuality at the beginning of this century, and Chicago performance artists Robyn Orlin and Claudia Vera explore the ramifications of his personality just as Kearns did with Hudson.

Kearns recently performed the 1989 Intimacies at Gallery 2, as part of Lawrence Steger’s ambitious “Private/Public” series, and the 1992 Rock at the Circle Theatre. These pieces, which Kearns also wrote, deal with a variety of characters, mostly male, mostly HIV positive. Seeing Intimacies first, I was able to gauge Kearns’s artistic mettle. In both pieces he uses many characters to drive home his intent, which is to humanize and give a face to those infected with HIV.

In Rock Kearns plays four characters who have a relationship with Hudson spiritually, metaphorically, or literally. We never actually see Hudson himself; however, we do get a kind of Rashomon portrait of him as we listen to the stories each of the characters tells. Rocky (from Little Rock) changes his name the day Hudson dies, which is also the day he loses his virginity, the day he realizes that like Hudson he is gay, and the day he leaves his mother for good. Another character is Reggie, an aging self-described queen who was Hudson’s acting, voice, and “leading male” coach; his story reveals the climate in Hollywood during the 50s, when Hudson was struggling to emerge as a straight male lead, and also the dark underbelly of gay culture. Another character, Marilyn Monroe (speaking from the “other side”), recounts a late-night phone conversation with Hudson in which she consoles him and encourages him to be a better actor by acting from his “truest self” and allowing the “little girl” inside him to come out. The fourth character (and my personal favorite) is Kearns himself, who shows us the painful reality of being blacklisted in Hollywood.

The Marilyn Monroe bit is fascinating more for its intent than anything else. Kearns makes use of two sides of her public persona: as a sort of heroic white goddess, the champion of the feminine in our culture, and as yet another sacrificial lamb, someone who died to perpetuate the myth of the ultramacho Kennedy cult. A powerful message in both Intimacies and Rock is Kearns’s idea that our culture does not allow the archetypal feminine aspect of men’s personalities to surface. Just as Tennessee Williams used the fallen, crazed, vain persona of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire to reveal a dramatic truth, Kearns also uses characters we might not like at first glance to reveal his vision of a deeper reality.

But when he is effectively himself–tells his own stories, shows his interviews on videotape, and makes use of his wicked and irreverent wit–Kearns is fascinating. He runs interviews he had with Entertainment Tonight in which he discusses his HIV-positive status, an ancient Tomorrow interview with Tom Snyder in which he poses as a gay prostitute and the author of a book called The Happy Hustler, and a porno tape (which accompanies his own monologue and provides a bizarre counterpoint to it). These were interesting touches that, if extended, would have created a fascinating performance-art evening in which Michael Kearns the “private” person might be juxtaposed against Kearns the public persona. There is so much more to Kearns that I know he could tell us: his early life in Hollywood, in which he made an attempt to pass as straight, his eventual acknowledgment of his sexual orientation, and his struggles as an actor.

The other point here is that Kearns has mastered everything one wishes performance artists would, though many appear to have forgotten all about. He effortlessly does the things actors take for granted: he projects his voice and uses his body like a fine-tuned instrument, extending and contracting his spinal column and changing his bearing to accommodate different characters. Yet the strength of performance art is the ability many artists have (notwithstanding poor posture, lack of timing, etc) to push the envelope of theater and art (and audience expectations) by allowing their bodies/personas to be brush strokes on a larger canvas, the entire environment of the piece. When he is speaking to the audience as Kearns “the man,” he begins to push that envelope simply in the way he frames himself, in the use of the porno videotape in particular.

Admittedly, my sentiments in no way reflect the sentiments of his audience–the one at Gallery 2 gave him a standing ovation for Intimacies. Because few people, let alone actors, have had the courage to discuss their own HIV status and homosexuality, it’s refreshing and praiseworthy that Kearns is engaged in this difficult work. It’s important that people in general see it, hear Kearns’s voice, and see that a beautiful, interesting person is infected with HIV. He ended his show by announcing that he had just received a role in the HBO film based on the book And the Band Played On. The audience clapped and cheered. There was something heartening about this bit of news, especially in light of the fact that he had told us earlier that he has been effectively blacklisted in Hollywood since announcing in 1989 that he is HIV positive.


Robyn Orlin and Claudia Vera

at Link’s Hall

December 11-13

The following week choreographer-performance artist Robyn Orlin (who’s from South Africa) and artist Claudia Vera (from Argentina) tackled similar issues in How Beautiful Is the Princess Salome Tonight. Unlike Kearns’s work, in which persona and presence in the performing space is all, here one looks less at persona and more at the piece and the environment as a whole. The lighting, costuming, and installation were superb, and Ames Hall and Ken Thompson, who also appeared in the piece, created an interesting counterpoint to Orlin’s rather possessed persona, Salome.

It would be hard to explain exactly who Hall and Thompson might be, however. Orlin had told me previously that Oscar Wilde would make an appearance in the piece. But Wilde was not mentioned in the program notes–in fact, in some fliers for Salome Orlin had written a headline: “Not Exactly Doris Day, Another Take on the Muse.” In the original announcement sent from Link’s Hall, Orlin alone is listed, and the piece was titled Reclining in Hell–The Natural History of the Chorus Girl. All this information suggests a flip-flop of female stereotypes. (It gives one pause that Kearns explored Rock Hudson the week before Vera and Orlin looked at Doris Day.)

A story I once read about Oscar Wilde seems a metaphor for many things in this work. It goes like this: Wilde had twin sisters. At a birthday party, one sister’s party dress caught on fire, and when the other tried to save her, they both caught on fire and died. I thought of this story when the piece began, because Hall and Thompson have a wonderful duet in which they hold lighters and wear slips, crinoline petticoats, or both. The piece begins with a table set with seven blue bottles, seven hooks hanging in space; a dimly lit, barely visible Orlin is underneath the table, atop a stack of plates. An animal carcass hangs stage left, swinging slightly in the breeze created by fans.

Hall and Thompson begin a rather erotic contact-improvisation dance (choreographed by Orlin and Vera) in which they each hold lighters and seem to be alternately attracting and repelling each other. Their relationship is strange and fascinating: at some points it appears one is raping the other; at other points, Hall roughly smashes and slams Thompson against the wall; in still other sections they’re a tangle of limbs, torsos, and lighters in the throes of passionate lovemaking–one is hard-pressed to see where one begins and the other ends. Little multicolored crinoline poufs of petticoats are placed at various points against the back wall, and Thompson alternately removes them and puts on new ones, first a pink one, then salmon, then blue, and so on. They wear slips at another point, and beneath the slips we can glimpse dark bikini underwear and knee pads.

It is a most effective and beautiful duet, hearkening to the story of the twin sisters but also to other instances of desire and ambivalence: the ambivalence lovers, friends, and sisters often feel for each other. Though sometimes this duet seems to show a man’s desire for a man, at other times it looks like a woman’s desire for a woman. Finally, the lights begin to dim as the two collapse at different points in the Link’s Hall space and seem to fall asleep; their separateness makes them seem to have lost something–beauty, innocence, first love.

At this point Orlin emerges from beneath the table and raises her arm into the air, then touches her body, looking levelly, almost beguilingly at the audience–rather as a mischievous child might look at an adult before dropping a glass, letting it smash to the floor. She looks a little like an Egon Schiele study of a woman: provocative, erotic, yet full of angles, with a square jaw, thin and sensual lips, and devouring eyes. She gropes and fondles herself, touching her stomach, her groin, her breasts. She picks up a plate, rubs it in a circular motion all over her body, puts it down. She sets every place at the table in this way. Then she throws her head back, lifts her legs, puts both hands into a fist and almost beats her sex with her fists, stopping herself midway and turning over. There is a tightening in her jaw, and a frightening set to her eyes: she looks sad and angry.

Orlin seems to recapitulate the despair and resignation I saw on the faces of women I knew as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s as they set tables, prepared dinners, and generally catered to the children and the men in their lives. Interestingly, Salome will perform her dance of the seven veils in exchange for the sacrifice of a man (John the Baptist). The lack of real power for women, Orlin seems to say, creates rage, subversion, and insanity for women and loss for everyone.

The performers in Salome were wonderful to watch, and insinuated themselves well into the general structure of the work. Hall and Thompson have tremendous presence and focus and move beautifully. Orlin’s performance style is seamless, riveting as usual. There was much more here than I’ve described; however, some of the best things in the piece are the surprises, the mysteries the audience might want to discover for themselves. The danger and claustrophobia so much in evidence when this was shown as a work in progress at Randolph Street Gallery seem to have vanished for the time being. Instead there was mystery, sadness, resignation, and a little romance in this gem of a piece.