at the Smart Bar, through October 30

The cabaret-style performance series Tawdry, offered on Saturday nights through the end of October, presents some very competent, skilled artists straitjacketed into a thematic framework that serves none of them well. The “tawdry” theme may have been an attempt to come up with something compatible with the space: the Smart Bar is after all an “underground” dance club, the kind of grim dungeon where fashionable cynicism rules. Choosing it as a performance venue may be symptomatic of a venue shortage or of the well-meaning but misguided desire to revive a scene that died a timely, dignified death last year with the closing of Club Lower Links (also a dark Lakeview nightclub at the bottom of a flight of stairs). But the choice of the Smart Bar is highly problematic, and its mindless, too-heavy atmosphere undercut much of what was meant to be serious here.

Despite the title and the antics of emcee Matthew Owens, it seems the performers have–probably to their credit–ignored the ostensible theme. In fact some have chosen to present what seem to be rough drafts of work apparently destined for performance in gallery spaces, which are not at all like the Smart Bar. With all this confusion and fragmentation, it’s not surprising that the first two nights of the series were wildly uneven, with many pieces sabotaged by tech incompetence. Even so, some interesting work did get its first public run-through.

Joan Dickinson’s “Candid Scenes of Humble People in Relaxed Settings at the Turn of the Century” gave us another look at the world she explored in her recent Link’s Hall presentation, Black Cake: a take on the late-19th-century America of Emily Dickinson and John James Audubon. As a Hawaiian steel guitar played obbligato to a wash of Muzak strings and slide projections of flowery ornamental engravings flashed on the backdrop, Dickinson danced a slow, languid hula, her torso encased in rigid, form-fitting wire mesh. The backdrop changed to a projection of three American Indians in a period engraving, arms out in a posture like Dickinson’s, echoed in turn by her shadow thrown up against the screen. After a fade-out, the lights came back up to the sound of squawking woodland birds. A wooden pole came forth mysteriously from the wings, tipped by a stuffed bird perched on a fat paintbrush. The pole reached all the way to stage left, dropped the brush into a pail of black paint, and to the accompaniment of soft, ethereal music slowly painted a wavy black line across the flat white screen. Suddenly a slide appeared there: two bestubbled, grinning Gemini astronauts photographed shortly after their 1965 splashdown.

Dickinson’s way with images is very free and playful, particularly her willingness to give over the stage to surreal ballets by inanimate objects (bizarrely reminiscent of the 1950s video work of Ernie Kovacs). The repeated waving motions–waving arms, the dark wavy line, the bird with its suggestion of flight and freedom, all of them in significant contrast to the wire cage around Dickinson–made the sudden appearance of two astronauts, who perform a different kind of flight, particularly startling. On October 9 Dickinson let this picture stand as the end of the piece. But on the 16th a knife pierced the screen, cutting around the top and sides of the projection. When the cutout fell, Dickinson was revealed holding the knife, which she tossed onto the stage in front of her before disappearing–only to reappear a moment later with flowers in her hands, as if to reassert the weight of nature over that of rockets.

On October 9, in the first installment of Kaja Overstreet’s serial piece “Fill Line,” she sat on a white pedestal, turned her back to the audience, and quietly dropped her black dress to the waist. Gradually the stage went dark as she related a series of harrowing family anecdotes: her gravely ill father struggling to choose between cremation and burial; her grandfather hustled off to a concentration camp; her German grandmother’s ashes shipped to the United States, stuck in New York by a longshoremen’s strike, then shipped mistakenly to New Jersey. All the while she performed slow, graceful hand movements in a pale rectangle of light projected against her bare back. The effect was of a tableau of lyrical sadness–death and loss countered by the body’s yearning affirmation of life–and it incidentally served to point up a key difference between performance art and conventional theater: while an actress might have felt compelled to stylize the diction and fake the “appropriate” emotions, Overstreet delivered her text in a calm, expressionless voice, leaving her potent words and images untainted by the stink of melodrama.

Overstreet’s second installment (and her last, as she has since dropped out of Tawdry) was thematically connected to her first, contrasting the life force with harrowing instances of death. As it opened she and Douglas Grew turned quick somersaults across a dark stage, then Overstreet gave a short talk on the characteristics of automobiles built in different countries, followed by an anecdote about buying gasoline during a road trip in Romania. This led to a scene set in a public bath amid thick billows of steam, with Overstreet as a white-jacketed masseuse working on a nude, inert client. She described in detail her method of touching each muscle group to try to alleviate pain–then suddenly recounted with calm, brutal detachment a fatal accident she witnessed on a rural Romanian road. At this point the piece was derailed by technical problems: the lights didn’t go down, a projector didn’t come on, and a crucial visual element–Overstreet’s hands moving within a small rectangle of light in the dark, as in the first installment–was lost.

Frank Melcori has marked out a path as a highly idiosyncratic monologuist in works like Nixon Live!–The Future Is Now and Sex Life 2000, which showcased his wryly naturalistic delivery. His material is the most mundane of life’s occurrences, and his forte is finding audacious, quirky ways to expand on and illuminate them. His contribution to this revue is a serial work called “Mexicali Shortgame” (an expansion of his Paso del Norte, performed at Link’s Hall earlier this year), and in it Melcori is apparently trying out something new. Alone onstage he plays two characters in a dialogue, rapidly switching back and forth from one to the other but without changing his voice or expression or providing any other cues as to who’s talking. To follow this story you’re forced to pay close attention to the content of the conversation–and when you do, the confusion disappears. What at first seems a perverse refusal to provide the necessary cues soon reveals itself as an ingenious way of sucking us into a more intense encounter with the characters. It’s an odd, subtle stylistic innovation, but an effective one.

Melcori is evidently still feeling his way into this style; he seemed shaky in his October 9 portrayal of a telephone conversation between two male friends, one of whom is about to leave on a Mexican bus trip, golf club in hand, little guessing that the gods are watching him and arguing among themselves over who will seize control of the wind and influence his game. But on October 16, in the second installment, Melcori made some curious but interesting choices. The protagonist is drinking in the desert at the Mexican border with a cheerful bigamist from Michoacan, and Melcori plays both of them in clownface with his head sticking out through a hole in a white screen, virtually immobile. The oddball visual choice–and Melcori’s emphatic, rapid-fire monotone delivery–left me scratching my head, I’ll admit, but laughing too. One can’t help admiring Melcori’s willingness to throw away caution and delegate decisions to his subconscious.

I couldn’t make much of Lawrence Steger’s cluttered, text-heavy piece on October 9, in which he narrated a dumb-show rendition of a story about the effete 18th-century king Ludwig II, who was preoccupied with his own petty anxieties. On the 16th, though, the next installment was more lucid. Steger read offstage narration while the actors through a deliberately slipshod rendition of a story about King Ludwig’s affection for his favorite court actor: this little production came complete with old-fashioned mechanical scenery and an apparently unplanned pratfall. It didn’t seem that Steger and his actors were aiming for much more than light, campy entertainment, and the piece fared well on those terms. Interestingly Steger–who has a reputation for a naturally powerful stage presence–took himself completely off the stage in this piece yet still managed to dominate it.

Matthew Owens, the Tawdry emcee, in the first two weeks shared the stage with inflatable sex dummies, made an appearance as “Mr. Dangle” with rubber penises hanging from his hat and shoes, conducted an “audience survey” while pumping what looked like a curious pedal-driven masturbation machine, and closed the show by sucking off a supposed decomposing male cadaver to the accompaniment of kitsch Muzak, all the while tossing his thick mane of long hair like a porn-vid heroine. On October 9, this part climaxed with the mannequin ejaculating what appeared to be Hershey’s syrup all over Owens’s face.

Some might find this stuff disgusting, and Owens is obviously trading on that fact. It may even be that he’s deliberately aiming low in an attempt to suit the Smart Bar space. But even if a performer has decided that a piece is “just for fun,” he still has a job to do: entertain the audience. And this is where the repetitiousness of Owens’s material is a major problem: he’s been working the same vein–decomposing corpses, body parts, spurting blood, etc–for rather a long time.

To be fair, there can be something endearingly human about artists who return obsessively to the same material, wringing endless variations from it and even occasionally falling flat. Think of Georgia O’Keeffe and her flowers, Federico Fellini and his clowns, Charles Bukowski and his horse races and beer. But for that approach to work the artist has to keep finding something new in the material; only then can it sustain interest as a microcosm. Unfortunately Owens seems unwilling or unable to do this, preferring to simply shock the audience and inspire the nervous laughter of revulsion. It would be silly to suggest that Owens restrain himself for fear of offending prudes on the right or the left–on the contrary, the easily offended may be just the ones who need to see such stuff, which calls into question why we find death, decomposition, and graphic sex so revolting in the first place. They’re all natural phenomena. But Owens’s failure to wrestle with these questions with any real depth suggests either an adolescent rebelliousness or, worse, an eagerness to pander to the lowest common denominator. It soon becomes objectionable not because it’s shocking (it’s not, particularly) or gross but because it’s boring.

Owens really went too far, though, when he read aloud a letter he’d found in the grass by the Chicago lakefront, a letter full of paranoid irrationalities, including an “enemies list” using people’s full names. To see such a heartbreaking document put on display without the anonymous author’s knowledge or consent was bad enough, but it might have been tolerable if Owens had explored its aesthetic possibilities or at least shown some interest in the writer’s very evident pain. Instead he simply held the letter up to sniggering public ridicule, degrading not only the author but the audience as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan Anderson.