Niagara! (You Should Have Been Yosemite)

David Kodeski

at the Neo-Futurarium, through April 5

By Justin Hayford

Late in his one-man show Niagara! (You Should Have Been Yosemite), David Kodeski turns his back to the audience and places his index finger at the base of his neck. Slowly, tenderly, with the light touch of a glass blower or a concert pianist playing triple pianissimo, he traces a line up halfway to the crown of his head. This sweet, aching gesture reveals a nightmarish horror; here, Kodeski tells us, is where his brother’s malignant brain tumor was.

The delicacy of this moment typifies Kodeski’s best work. In his last solo piece, David Kodeski’s True Life Tales: Doris–a mesmerizing portrait of a 92-year-old woman Kodeski had befriended–he honed that touch, illustrating the nine decades of her life in succinct images gently presented. Kodeski told Doris’s story in her own words, with all their jumbles, confusions, and ellipses, chronicling not only her life but the deterioration of the mind that contained its only complete record.

True Life Tales stood out from the glut of one-person shows in Chicago not only for its precision and subtlety but for its focus: for once a monologuist was talking about someone other than himself. With Niagara! Kodeski rejoins the crowd, focusing largely on himself and his family in an autobiographical and at times quasi-confessional piece. As a familiar idiom on Chicago’s performance scene, this approach puts Kodeski’s delicate touch to the test: at almost every turn he runs the risk of falling into self-absorption or self-pity, especially since his central story is the slow, bewildering death of his ten-year-old brother Tom from brain cancer.

But thanks to a poetic sensibility that creates penetrating, resonant images with both gravity and humor, Kodeski is up to this test. Despite the awful weight of the piece–literally echoed in the thunderous roar of Niagara Falls, a tape of which plays in the background now and again–Kodeski adopts a coy, at times even lighthearted persona. For much of the hour-long piece he takes the audience on a guided tour of Niagara Falls, something he did professionally as a youth. And his tour-guide routine is a comic tour de force. Dressed in an unflattering yellow slicker, he bellows over the recorded boom of falling water a litany of trivial facts–the difference in height between the American and Canadian falls, for example–with the numbed, officious enthusiasm of a TV spokesmodel or long-suffering civil servant. At other times he speaks more candidly about growing up in the cultural wasteland of Niagara Falls (“Whiting, Indiana, with a natural wonder”), a town that insistently directs its gaze toward the placid Niagara River rather than the chemical factories dumping tons of cancer-producing sludge into its waters (sludge that drew the nation’s attention during the Love Canal horror of the late 1970s).

Like a river winding through oxbows, Kodeski’s narratives swirl back and forth through time. The story of Tom’s death, heard mostly in voice-over as actors read transcriptions of telephone interviews with family members, loops back on itself hypnotically. One moment Tom is dead, and the next his cancer is in remission. This arresting, emotionally accurate portrayal of an inevitable, senseless death captures the tumultuous emotions surrounding it.

Like Niagara Falls–a transcendent marvel framed by tacky tourist traps–this kind of death offers a series of collisions between the sublime and the banal. Kodeski’s family remembers Tom’s illness largely as a string of petty inconveniences and disruptions; one of Kodeski’s siblings recalls having to stay at an aunt’s house, for example, where the spaghetti was awful. At the same time, the family’s sense of history is irrevocably changed by these minor events. Time doesn’t flow through months or seasons anymore but through the symptoms of the dying; the only way people can get their bearings is to try to recall if something happened before or after the doctors put the shunt in Tom’s head.

While the voice-overs of family remembrances give Niagara a melancholy richness, they also leave Kodeski stranded from time to time. During them he sits stock-still at a desk lit by a single, glaring light, listening intently, a mysterious and never-opened briefcase before him. Occasionally he holds up a sign with a word or phrase printed on it–“malignant” or “remission” or “she is no longer Catholic.” Though this technique produces moments of pointed irony or deep sadness, sometimes it simply restates the obvious. And the family’s reminiscences begin to sound interchangeable, adding little new information. By the third voice-over, Niagara! has run temporarily aground.

But Kodeski manages to get it back on course, for the show rests on more than his brother’s death. His myriad stories flow together around a central image: being poised above an abyss. Sometimes this image is unmistakable, as when Kodeski describes a float in the Maid of the Mist parade: a papier-mache canoe hangs suspended on the lip of a chicken-wire waterfall, a smiling young woman from the local Tuscarora tribe sitting in the canoe as the legendary Maid herself. Sometimes the image is veiled, as when Kodeski visits the Tuscarora reservation and sees the poverty of a people on the brink of extinction. Sometimes the image is hypnotic, as when he dreams that all his family members are being swept over the falls and calling to him, “Come on in! The water’s fine!”

While Kodeski sees the danger in everyone else’s predicament, he observes the chasm beneath him–the spiritual hole opened by his brother’s youthful death–from a distance, safe behind the guardrails of an artistic imagination. We hear almost none of Kodeski’s memories of his brother’s death and get little sense of how it affected him at the time. He displays no emotion while listening to his family’s disturbing memories. Instead he symbolically reduces his role to that of a mute spectator, left to hold up simple words on pieces of cardboard now and again. It’s as if he weren’t there at the center of his own life but escorted through the periphery as a kind of tourist. Whether this self-portrait is a heartfelt confession or an artistic conceit is immaterial. The image of a man half-present in the most eventful moments of his own life gives Niagara! a staggering poignancy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lee Trusello.