Live Aid

New York

Left: Spike Lee. (Photo: Paula Court) Right: Murray Hill with John Leguizamo. (Photo: Andrew Bicknell)

IN THE PERFORMING ARTS WORLD, as you head south from the safe environs of uptown Manhattan, the chance (or danger, depending on your constitution) of being hauled onstage grows ever greater. When the genre is neo-burlesque, audience participation is almost a foregone conclusion.

And so it was Tuesday evening on the Lower East Side, at Performance Space 122’s spring gala in a packed Abrons Arts Center, that two hapless men found themselves suddenly outfitted with panties, gauzy red skirts, cowboy hats, and Rapunzel wigs, serving as human scaffolding for the acrobatic hijinks of the Wau Wau Sisters. “Welcome to New York, Tommy,” one Wau told her dazed-looking victim, who earlier answered “no” in a polished British accent when she asked if he’d always wanted to be in show business.

“Hard to tell,” P.S. 122’s artistic director Vallejo Gantner whispered from the row behind me when I asked whether he’d just won or lost a potential donor. There have, apparently, been other audience-participation incidents that didn’t swing the theater’s way. This time, however, everyone got lucky: Shortly thereafter, the same “Tommy” successfully bid on Billi Kid’s Michelle Obama Combo Slaps collage (featured, it was advertised, in New York magazine), auctioned off by producer and performer Lucy Sexton.

Chic sponsors, imported celebrities, luxury-item auctions: As May gala madness heats up, you can almost hear the checks being ripped from their (sometimes grudging) books. P.S. 122 didn’t net the First Lady herself (who wowed American Ballet Theatre’s gala attendees last year), but there were plenty of stars mingling with the colorful, artist-laden crowd, including Spike Lee, honorary chair Claire Danes, and the evening’s guest of honor, John Leguizamo.

Left: The Wau Wau Sisters. Right: Claire Danes. (Photos: Andrew Bicknell)

After he burst onto the New York club scene in the late ’80s, Leguizamo honed his voice at P.S. 122, using it as a laboratory of sorts to develop several works, including Spic-O-Rama in 1991 and 1997’s Freak, part of a generation to achieve that lucrative but dubious grail of the performing arts—crossover appeal. (Another, Eric Bogosian, offered a brief video tribute and performance, one of several artists who gave the lineup a back-to-the-’80s vibe.) “It was the best place to fail,” Leguizamo said. “People came to see you suck.”

Indeed. On the red carpet, asked by irrepressible art duo AndrewAndrew to draw the greatest moment of his own career, Leguizamo, much to their delight, promptly sketched an ejaculating penis. “Wasn’t that amazing?” one of the Andrews gushed. “This is going straight to YouTube.” In keeping with that, shall we say, “theme,” the night’s emcees Carmelita Tropicana and Marga Gomez later assured Leguizamo that “Eve Ensler has nothing on you. When I think of the theater and vaginas I think of you.”

In addition to the sexual asides came the obligatory Arizona jokes, with Gomez calling for an “international performance-art boycott of Arizona.” John Turturro read from one of Leguizamo’s scripts after telling him “You’ve gotten a lot better” since 1988, when they met, and Rosie Perez offered a raunchy monologue of her own––her portrayal of a beleaguered, Budweiser-slugging Puerto Rican mother earning a standing ovation from the man of the night.

Accepting his award from Lee, Leguizamo waxed nostalgic about the all-but-vanished East Village underground scene: “There were always more people onstage than in the audience. That’s how you knew it was performance art.”