at Randolph Street Gallery

Meatballs/Fluxus is a group that succeeds only when it fails. The more uninteresting, unvaried, and untheatrical the image they choose to explore, the more engaging their work becomes. It takes enormous patience to sit through their More of the Same but None of the Above, In Three Acts. Much of the piece, especially in the first half, seems at first glance entirely meaningless and empty. Long sections during which one simple activity is performed go on endlessly with little variation. But these sections, paradoxically, are the most engrossing of the evening. If you can tolerate the boredom these scenes intentionally bring on, you begin to discover the delicate beauty and subtle nuances in them. It’s rather like listening to someone repeat the same word 500 times. By the 400th time, that word has evolved into a magical collection of never-before-heard sounds that have always been present but seem revealed for the first time.

More of the Same begins with exactly this idea. Each of the eight men who make up the group casually stroll onstage and continue to stroll around the room, each repeating the word “faggot” over and over again. The word is stated simply for its musical value, not for its meaning, derogatory or otherwise. It’s sung as a low, steady chant by one man, a sharp, piercing blast by another, a noncommittal hum by another.

At first it seems funny, particularly because the men seem so thoroughly detached, from the action and from the word itself. They walk around repeating the word completely deadpan, like frogs calling out to one another. It soon becomes clear that these men are troublemakers, the kind who enjoy seeing just how much an audience will tolerate. They’re not spiteful, though–just playful and mischievous.

As this section continues and the novelty wears off, it becomes even more meaningless and truly boring. But the men continue the repetition for at least another five minutes, allowing the meaninglessness to evolve into something like delight. The word no longer makes any sense, but the sound of all the voices, high and low, near and far, clear and mumbling, has become beautiful, unstructured music. It’s like hearing the play of engines, horns, and brakes in traffic.

Throughout the first section, a huge table has been center stage, set with a bounty of food–a cucumber salad, a loaf of bread, a jug of red wine, and a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Whoever set out this feast is also a playful troublemaker: alongside the beautifully polished silverware and candle holders is a cheap bottle of supermarket salad dressing. Clearly formality is something just out of reach of these men.

When the “faggot” section is over, a huge white sheet is draped over the dinner table and all eight men crawl under it and proceed to eat dinner. For 20 minutes. All we hear is the clinking of silverware and their utterly banal conversation, almost all of it centered on the act of eating itself: “It’s oil and vinegar, so you have to shake it up”; “Here, Al, have some of mine, I can’t eat any more”; “Maybe next time we can get Mexican.” Throughout this section a sign hangs on the back wall, reading, “Private party–Fuck off!”

This is a thrillingly boring section–the boredom is complete, perfect, and effortless. It’s a truly moronic thing to do on stage, not only because there is nothing particularly stageworthy about eating dinner but because the entire affair is hidden from us. We’re left feeling like fools. To drive the point home, the entire meal is televised and played back “as it happens” on a video monitor. Since nothing happens, what’s on the television is even more boring than what’s on the stage.

Yet the whole affair is curiously fascinating and extremely funny, mostly due to the charm of the eight performers (Joseph Auger, Umberto Crenca, James Finnerty, Gerard Heroux, Russell Kellogg, Keith Munslow, Tom Hurdle, and Alec Redfearn). They don’t seem defiant or self-important, as if they are boldly knocking down the pretensions and testing the limits of performance art. Rather, they’re acting like they’re just playing a big practical joke on the audience.

Also fascinating is the visual beauty of this section. At first there seems to be nothing to look at, but as the piece wears on, the very shape of the men under the sheet seems to evolve and transform, maybe only because we’ve been forced to look at it so long. A rip or a wrinkle floating on that huge white surface becomes magical.

Such actions can perhaps be best described as antiperformance. These are real, unfakable events that have a kind of beauty in their unremarkableness. During other sections of the piece, when the men try to make “performances” out of their material, the piece is much less successful. The entire third act, in fact, falls flat. Titled “Ejacula,” it’s billed as an “all-nude pro jacks competition.” A boxing ring is erected on stage, and the two contestants–introduced as Stravinsky and Shostakovich–are led into the ring with a collection of managers and a referee, all in drag. Stravinsky and Shostakovich strip and proceed to play a game of jacks.

It’s a funny idea, but the entire scene is so cluttered and forced that it doesn’t have half the impact of the simpler images. All of the men try so hard to be clever–unfortunately, their verbal wit is not commensurate with their visual wit–that the act quickly degenerates into a jumble. They are giving us so much information that little of it gets across. What becomes apparent is the effort, not the absurdity. The group’s cartoonish self-consciousness and overdecoration are decidedly not absurd; they’re part of our theatrical tradition and convey meaning in and of themselves. It’s only when the performers give us nothing remotely theatrical, or even stageworthy, that the enormous challenge of their particular brand of performance pays off.