New York

Jill Kroesen

Jill Kroesen’s 10-act, 21/2-hour presentation of all of Western history from Evolution to The End had minor difficulties. Twenty performers, props such as oatmeal and potatoes, missiles and limp swords, 10 countries, a bardo (the Tibetan afterworld), three social classes, memorized lines and throwaway lines, some songs, a reigning god called Mother and played by Michael Cooper, and her son, named Stanley Oil and played by Kroesen, are some of the components juggled in Stanley Oil and His Mother: A Systems Portrait of the Western World. The Western world, it turns out, is something like a Montessori classroom run by sincerely confused teachers.

Mother cannot stir from her chair on the podium and must carry out her orders through Stanley, a demiurge at best. Stanley climbs down from Mother’s knee to experiment with various countries scattered in little groups around the performance area, but his religious/social systems are inevitably the wrong tools for the wrong job (“This is one of the few ideas that Mother didn’t have anything to do with,” he observes proudly as he introduces the Black Plague as population control). He rationalizes out loud as he goes along, but, as Nietzsche observed, “one chooses dialectics only when one has no other expedient,” and Stanley’s logic has a decidedly skittish quality.

Coached this way from the sidelines, civilization lurches into shape. Each country is divided into three classes, each class in each country represented by a performer: Beggars sift through bins of grain, Waiters run religion and cities, and Kings plunder everyone. All the performers recite set lines at set times, making a sort of round robin of commentary, for instance the Beggar’s “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Half-human, Half-animal, please give me everything I want and don’t make anything bad happen.” As history grows more complex (and the evening waxes late) the performers become rowdy, tossing plunder in the form of fruit and vegetables at each other, tossing off a world war or two, while the Kings (mostly corporate executives, dictators, and presidents by now) ad lib out of turn and step on each others’ lines outrageously.

A more obedient set of performers (if Kroesen had wanted them) would have produced a history more like clockwork than patchwork. But patchiness, the scruffy underside of power, obsesses her, as she remarks fairly directly in the songs she interrupts the performance now and then to sing. Most of Kroesen’s songs, whether sung in performance or in cabaret, describe power relationships; in Stanley Oil the terms are put more impersonally than usual, as she addresses advice to individuals such as Charlemagne and Napoleon. Throughout Stanley Oil highlights are flattened—the distancing effect Brecht urged for didactic theater.

Like Moorman and Paik’s OperaSextronique, Kroesen’s pieces have, on occasion, fun afoul of the law. For instance at the 1976 Avant Garde Festival Kroesen bicycled around Floyd Bennet Air Field with a huge pyramid over herself and bicycle; on the pyramid’s sides were words and drawings of obscene comments shouted at her (and her fantasized replies) when she worked as a bicycle messenger in downtown Manhattan. The police patrolling the festival made her discard the pyramid as it might possibly offend the general public.

The offense, of course, lies in the explicit reversal of making the public private and the private public: singing confidences to Napoleon and exhibiting street language as a matter of record. Three videotapes by Kroesen shown at The Kitchen during the day-time provided other windows into patches of territory at odds with each other. In Elatia and Jennifer two women of sharply different temperament tried to coexist and politely converse in a room in front of an unattended video camera. Goodbye Piece overdubbed a drawn-out farewell scene between a man and woman until only fuzzy images and voice tones—one diffident, the other pleading—remained. In Wicked Messenger Kroesen masturbated standing up, her torso slightly out of focus, her genitals slightly out of range, and singing slightly discordantly all the while.

The power controlling the viewer’s perception in Wicked Messenger remained in Kroesen’s hands, the amount and quality of information strictly rationed, the nature of the information always in question. Opera Sextronique, only a decade away, seems in this light incredibly optimistic in its presentation of open, engaged sensuality on a par with music, movement and costumes. A celebration of Rumilia, the Roman goddess of breasts, is superseded by more severe divines keeping sharp account of power.

Barbara Baracks