Straight Acting

Claudia La Rocco on New York City Players and Radiohole

Richard Maxwell, Isolde, 2014. Performance view, Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY, April 2014. Patrick and Massimo (Jim Fletcher and Gary Wilmes). Photo: David Pym.

“THE DIFFERENCE between theater and performance is that she would have actually penetrated Tony.”

Such was artist Kenneth Collins’s observation to me while we were watching Ubu Sings Ubu at Abrons Arts Center last week—specifically, while we were watching Julie Atlas Muz fake ass fuck Tony Torn with, if memory serves, a sausage dildo, as they portrayed Ma and Pa Ubu in Torn’s musical adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s fin de siècle rampage of a play Ubu Roi.

On the one hand, Collins was rolling his eyes at the tediously erroneous visual art tenet that, you know, theater is theatrical and performance art is real. But on the other hand—if you’re going to go through all the trouble to whip out your lengthy, somewhat limp sausage dildo…

But I digress. Because what I really want to talk about are the other two plays I saw last week: New York City Players’ Isolde, written by Richard Maxwell, and Radiohole’s adaptation of Myth (or Maybe Meth), written by Tom Murrin. And maybe more so I want to discuss going to a certain kind of show in this city, and questions of realness and authenticity and codes of behavior and just who are these shows for, anyway? In other words: I feel reasonably confident that simulated sex will come up again. And again.

To see Radiohole and New York City Players in the span of twenty-four hours, as I did, is to feel oneself shuttling between two distinct poles of contemporary New York theater. Maxwell crafts and directs tightly controlled worlds out of meticulous language and blocking, while Radiohole’s brand of subversive complexity tends to be lewd and explosive and beer-sodden. At only one of these shows were people (wisely) nervous to sit in the front row.

But in another sense these two groups are occupying the exact same territory, one that maintains (and is held to) a self-conscious separation from the conventions and expectations of commercial and mainstream theater, in search of something that, I think, is hoping to get a little bit closer to what it is maybe actually like to be a human being. The odious term off-Broadway still implies that the Great White Way is the center of the universe, and that ain’t where these guys live.

Which isn’t to say they don’t have their own conventions and expectations, and that they don’t fall prey to them all the time. “This didn’t feel like a Radiohole show,” another friend said to me about Myth (or Maybe Meth), which was part of a larger Murrin celebration at La MaMa. Nope. I agree. It felt more like a period piece, but a surreal one—a bunch of straight male performers in the twenty-first century maneuvering beneath a queer camp misogynist overlay.

Radiohole, Myth (or Maybe Meth), 2014. Performance view, La MaMa, New York, NY, April 2014. Eric Dyer. Photo: Scott R. Adkins.

“You don’t have to prove shit to anyone when you’re bare-ass naked,” one of the performers, I think it was Scott Halvorsen Gillette said, and if it was Scott he was masquerading as a woman, sort of, or maybe masquerading as a drag queen, and his genitals were duct-taped beneath a saran wrap skirt and in general looked abused. I guess I agree with him: Either you don’t have to prove anything, or you can’t—whoever’s witnessing has already come to some unavoidable conclusions of their own.

Isolde was another kind of straight—a tightly wound drama that used an upper-crust love triangle between a couple and a star architect to mess around with issues of class and gender. But definitely from the thoughtful-man-in-a-position-of-power point of view. I kept thinking of Jonathan Franzen. No one was naked, though you did get to see one skinny-man behind, and as it happened this belonged to the star architect, who might have been communing with Radiohole when he declared, while fully clothed, “I don’t have to justify myself. I’m impossible.”

So it was well-behaved, only you could see all the seams—like Maxwell was rolling around a Rubik’s Cube, undecided whether to line up the colors or scramble them. It was beautiful, and never once menacing, and the only time when there was a sense that the fourth wall might be broken was when, surveying the imaginary dream house they were going to build, the intensely fine actors were actually surveying the audience, and sitting in the darkness staring back at them you felt that you had the choice to embody the impossible dream house.

And yes (yes!) there was simulated sex of all kinds in both productions. I mean, all of the kinds but one were in Myth (or maybe Meth) and that kind (furtive and hetero) was in Isolde. Just for the record.

The crowd at La MaMa was as raucous as the larger Isolde audience at Abrons was rapt. But at each one you could see the layers of sediment—the theater-making colleagues, the family and friends, the longtime fans and the gradations of newer followers. You could place yourself on the spectrum, and feel smug, or bereft, or maybe like you were in the wrong theater.

And you know probably this is the same in Broadway houses. Ok, so maybe the infant child of one of the performers isn’t there, as he was at La MaMa, getting pretty vocally consternated at the sight of his daddy doing all sorts of things. But the gradations are always there, if you know how to look.

You can see why I was digressing earlier, maybe. I’m not sure I really know how to talk about this stuff. What exactly I want to say. I can tell you how bad it smelled in the theater toward the end of Myth (or maybe Meth) from all the food and fluids they’d been exchanging. At the end of the show, Jim Findlay sang-growled-yelled “Love is shit all night long” while some audience members cheered and others booed and still others blew on the little cock-and-ball whistles that had been provided for just such a purpose. And that was beautiful, but in a different way than when someone said in Isolde, flatly, just the way the New York City Players do, “I don’t see anything I can make sense of.”

New York City Players’ Isolde ran April 10–26 at Abrons Arts Center in New York; Radiohole’s Myth (or Maybe Meth) ran April 24–27 at La Mama.