at Randolph Street Gallery, February 12 and 13

Performance art, unfortunately, is burdened with an aura of pretension. From the hipper-than-hip audience members who act as though the rest of us have come to watch them to the artists who seem to believe that obscurity, impenetrability, and starting half an hour late equal genius, performance events can try even the most generous patience.

Randolph Street Gallery has long been something of a haven from this nonsense, so it is only fitting that the gallery’s recent series, “Manipulation: Artists Perform With Objects,” should conclude with Chris Sullivan and Brendan deVallance, two of the most entertaining, skilled, and unpretentious performance artists around.

Sullivan’s piece, White Lightning’s Still the Biggest Kick of All, is a puppet show that takes place on a preciously junky little stage. On it is built a kitschy living room set, complete with a string of Christmas lights outlining the space and mousetraps all over the floor. The piece begins as a woman orders a pizza with “bullets and stab wounds” delivered to her home. She speaks like a Sam Spade character, every phrase dark, clever, and punchy. Suddenly her husband drops in–the marionette simply plops in from above–and he announces, “It’s your seemingly inexhaustible white trash husband character.”

We soon discover this family’s paralyzing paranoia, most of which stems from their need to protect their baby from harm. They have already engraved her Social Security number on her teeth in order to thwart potential kidnappers who might try to sell her into prostitution, and every few months they update her photo so they’ll be ready to produce a “missing child” poster at a moment’s notice. When the pizza delivery man finally arrives, he has to slide the slices through the mail slot one at a time.

The irony, of course, is that the danger to the baby comes from inside the family. The father becomes insanely jealous of the pizza man and beats his wife unconscious. He gives his baby a Luger to protect herself. In a program note Sullivan explains, “We fear being murdered by the hands of a crack-crazed gangbanger, serial killer, or wandering child molester. [We ignore] the destructive powers given to those close to us . . . ”

The presentation is quite funny, because Sullivan’s writing is so clever and because the piece acknowledges its schlocky limitations. The marionettes flop around the stage as if their operators have never worked them before. The language is highly self-conscious and intentionally overwrought, and Sullivan and Laura Saaf do the characters’ voices with effortless charm.

Funny though it is, White Lightning remains frustratingly static. Sullivan creates a world so insular that nothing comes in contact with it. As a result, there is little opportunity for change either within the characters or within the structure of the work. Additionally, the characters are thoroughly derided throughout. By expressing such a strong dislike, Sullivan forgoes the emotional complexity that might exist in his puppet’s world.

DeVallance’s piece, The Sound Is Furry, seems to be simply a collection of sight gags, yet it’s a deeply felt and surprisingly touching work. DeVallance simply lines up the things he will use onstage, jumbled together with a bunch of extension cords, then goes on to produce some of the most clever and intriguing stage images you’ll ever see.

He enters with a large piece of aluminum foil pressed against his face, his glasses holding the foil against his head. The image, which is stunning, is immediately made fun of as he picks up a microphone and begins to speak, his voice rattling against the foil. He also has nothing whatsoever to say, spitting out a few halting sentences about bringing all his props from New York. He concludes honestly, “It’s just me, and I’m going to do some stuff with some of this crap.”

What deVallance does is create a series of images so simple and so bizarre that they achieve the enormous resonance of dreams. He tries to play a Glen Campbell record on a cheap little turntable, but the record is growing hair and it jams the mechanism. He straps a broken mirror to his back and explains his theory that taking in a broken mirror is good luck, while audience members heckle him with lines he handed them before the piece started. He straps a chain saw to his head, stares silently at the audience, lets the chain saw run for a minute, and then says quietly, “I’ve noticed you don’t have to say very much when you have a chain saw on your head.”

The humor in the piece comes not only from the absurd juxtapositions but from the almost childlike way they’re presented. DeVallance simply does something, like trying to saw the end off a textbook with a saw labeled “sadness,” then stops and does something else. Nothing is ever concealed. As he says, “My intentions are written on my sleeve.”

Yet deVallance’s artistry allows for much more. A subtle theme slowly emerges that brings the entire piece masterfully together in its final moment. Early on he reads a kind of mock poem that includes the line, “Am I the only one with shoes that hurt?” About halfway through, he states in another poem, “The world is a pair of shoes that don’t fit that I am forced to wear.” And during the last section of the piece he observes that the desire for new shoes is purely human; animals don’t want shoes in the first place. We humans need something beyond nature–meaning.

It’s an idea that recalls a section in which deVallance strapped on a tape recorder that played sounds of a storm and held up a blank cartoon bubble–suggesting he had no voice in the face of nature. But in the final moment of the piece deVallance tells us in a voice ringing with sincerity, “New shoes are around.”

It is exactly this sense of discovery in everyday objects that deVallance has so skillfully demonstrated during the evening. It is this ability to find meanings in the artifacts of our lives, however curious and personal they may be, that can keep the human spirit alive.