Standing on the Fingernails That Are Gripping the Edge

Terri Kapsalis, Julie Laffin, and Rennie Sparks

at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, November 26

I was so taken with the Lunar Cabaret’s pristine, warm, bustling ambience that for quite a while I didn’t notice Julie Laffin sprawled on the floor. Then, during a break in the evening’s performances, I saw a figure dressed entirely in black inching along, face down, her feet crossed at the ankles, one arm poised upward holding a lipstick: Laffin’s Kiss Piece, part of a program called “Standing on the Fingernails That Are Gripping the Edge.”

The three artists here each represented a different style: Laffin is highly conceptual (she recently performed another version of this piece at Franklin Furnace in New York); Sparks usually does monologues; and Kapsalis (whom I saw perform once before at HotHouse) did a lecture/performance–a genre very big at conferences these days in which artists or art historians create performance art out of the usually dry slide presentation.

But back to the figure on the floor. At first I thought it might be a cabaret patron full tilt on a bad trip, or maybe someone’s preadolescent daughter, bored with this evening of performance and in the early stages of a sulking tantrum. What was especially confusing was that waiters and patrons walked past or over her–one group of people perched on stools almost directly above her head while she inched along, and no one paid any attention to her. I felt a grim panic and signaled Beau O’Reilly urgently. He said, “Oh, that’s Julie Laffin. She’s been here since four o’clock” (it was then past 10:30).

I suddenly noticed the trail she’d left: a long path of kisses, like the marks left in sand by a crab creeping from its hole at low tide. The lipstick marks spelled out in capital letters: “There was a time when I worshiped the ground you walked on.” Laffin applied lipstick and kissed the floor to create the letters. The glass door was full of kisses in rows. Someone called to her at one point, “How are you doing?” Laffin looked up and nodded hello, then went back to her grim, redundant duty. Her face was smeared with lipstick from above her lips down to her chin and lower cheeks, as though she’d gobbled a lipstick cake. Like much of her other work, Kiss Piece successfully explores and brands the images of women as martyrs perpetuated by popular sayings and songs.

The evening began with Rennie Sparks’s monologue Stuffed Animals. The story she tells is long, convoluted, and highly melodramatic, much of it punctuated with “And then it came to me…” or “then it hit me…” or “then I realized…” A gang rape, her parents’ murder when she was 16, meeting her true love at Dunkin’ Donuts, struggling up the corporate ladder at Dunkin’ Donuts and encountering a glass ceiling of sorts, her strange sadomasochistic relationship with a lover who has a penchant for inhaling Scotchgard and airplane glue and defecating and urinating on doughnuts–all are part of her persona’s plotless monologue. It’s like a deconstruction of conventional story telling or conventional monologue technique, in which every few minutes the action reaches a precipice, then cuts to another intrigue that’s taken to a crescendo, stops abruptly, and cuts to another situation. But what even the worst soap operas possess is a compelling hook, however inconsistent with character or plot.

Many video and performance artists in the last 20 years have explored the soap opera format as a way of examining narrative itself: Mindy Faber, Christine Tamblyn, and the late Barbara Latham come to mind. I fear that Sparks is laboring in a field already well plowed, and without the knowledge that has accrued.

More successful was Terry Kapsalis’s concise, sardonic monologue with slides and violin, Vaginal Architecture, in which she compared the structure and historical patriarchal view of the vagina to various architectural forms: vestibules, vaulted passageways, ancient canals, halls of mirrors, labyrinthine courses. Her delivery was acute, sharp, unfaltering. Wearing a little cotton jacket over a crinoline slip, she had something that sounded like a rain stick within her skirt and shook it once or twice for emphasis. She plucked and stroked her violin to great effect, creating by turns discordant erratic sounds and smooth, silky, sentimental melodies that highlighted the dry language of the slides (which were taken from the introduction to an architecture text). One or two slides were textbook diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system, including the vaginal canal. Kapsalis was in fine form–strong, articulate, and fascinating to watch.

As I left the cabaret, I saw Laffin somewhat dazed, standing upright, her performance complete. A swirl of friends surrounded her. Her lipstick marks on the floor were smearing as people walked toward the exit of this beautiful new space, filled to capacity by a cheerful crowd. In minutes there was just a patina of red on the floor, a faint veil of color. Like so much performance and cabaret that has come and gone, this evening left prints but no tangible history. Only the occasional marks remain, faint kisses from another time.