New York

Stuart Sherman

Open Space Theater

Stuart Sherman’s “Spectacles” exemplify a kind of performance art whose roots are not only in visual art and traditional theater, but also in music, popular entertainment, and games both of skill and of make-believe. This genre depends heavily on the performer’s almost continuous use of various readymade and unelaborate, but provocative, props. They are usually manipulated by a single performer. The artistic sources for this “device theater” include the highly structured and introspective drama of Richard Foreman, the formalized “structurist” theater related to Foreman which Michael Kirby has been championing, Fluxus events and Happenings—both historical and recent—and the musical and extra-musical philosophies and practices associated with John Cage.

Ralston Farina was an early formulator of device-theater performances, influenced by Cage to present “time/time” events as early as the late 1960s; in these, which Farina continues to realize, Farina seeks to articulate temporal relationships. More recently—and without the influence of Farina’s little-publicized work—the device-theater genre has come to include the intimate “Theater of Musical Optics” of John Zorn, the stand-up gag and character routines of Michael Smith, and the image-oriented presentations of Sherman, Kate Davy, and others.

Sherman’s device theater “Spectacles” are presented in both staged and impromptu outdoor situations. Each consists of a series of events performed rapidly, gracefully, and in quick succession, with an array of mostly dime-store items. Sherman segues from one temporal image to another, with quick reflexes and usually without missing a beat, as if he were effecting the mimetic dramatization of a Rube Goldberg contraption. Sight gags, visual puns, and startling but logical contextual associations occur, with disarmingly sudden transition. Sherman combines the impulses, if not the show-business slickness, of a mime, a magician, and a nightclub comic.

His eighth Spectacle, most recently presented in the “Playwrights’ Group Festival” at the Open Space in SoHo, is comprised of 20-odd “portraits” of various friends, only a few (like Foreman or Kate Mannheim) likely to be known even to Sherman’s informed audience. Even to those who know any of the subjects well, the references are obscure, and certainly private. Iconographic interpretation is tempting, but the mysterious gestures only tease the would-be interpreter with their structural clarity.

A portrayal of Bob Fleischner, for example, has Sherman seated at a small mirror mounted on a music stand. Sherman aims a flashlight at himself, touches the head of the flashlight with a paintbrush, then “paints” on the mirror with the brush. He subsequently turns on a cassette of a 1930s song and waltzes with the music stand. The song ends on the word “you”; Sherman’s voice, on tape, picks up the word and repeats it incessantly, while Sherman himself places the mirror before the audience. These gestures, as readable as each is, are not only ambiguous, but are based on a continuum of mutual, rather than merely referent, generation.

If the events are thus triggering each other, how does their relation to Fleischner inform them? And what exactly is their relation to Fleischner? Is Sherman pretending to be Fleischner? Or is he acting out what Fleischer’s view of him might be? Is Sherman addressing himself to Fleischner, or to the audience? Or is he playing Fleischner addressing himself of the audience, or back to Sherman? Sherman’s portraits are propelled, rather than hindered, by these ambiguities. Without outside logical certainties governing their meaning, the portraits determine their own logic, a shifting, highly adaptable logic redolent of Hellzapoppin’ slapstick.

The action of a Sherman Spectacle is not slapstick, however, but something more delicate, more dramatically poised. This is apparent in “Slight,” the piece Sherman presented with the eighth Spectacle. “Slight” is in fact a brief piece by Richard Foreman. It is one of those evidently innumerable sketches of Foreman’s which fall between, and often into, his Ontological-Hysteric polylogy. “Slight” is, or at least seems to be, a man-woman interchange on both domestic and philosophic levels that takes place among changing landscapes. It is indeed sketchy, rendered as a poemlike trail down the page, with little hierarchical distinction between spoken lines and stage directions—similar to Gertrude Stein’s plays, but less verbally, though far more dramatically, dense. Sherman realized “Slight” as a dumb show. He interpreted both stage directions and spoken parts as silent action.

The action was naturally device-oriented, depending on items like a beach ball, a box, a wad of pencils, a plexiglas panel, a sun reflector, plastic coffee cups, yellow mannequin legs, and the like. Sherman operated as director rather than as performer. For once, he was working with multiple performers. George Ashley, Kate Davy, and Scotty Snyder, acting the mute roles of Foreman’s basic triumvirate of Max, Rhoda, and Sophia, dispatched their activities with the same quick-paced efficiency that Sherman musters for his own performances—and, in fact, as Foreman’s troupe demonstrates in the Ontological-Hysteric plays. The spatial and temporal rhythm and geometry of “Slight” revealed Sherman’s debt to Foreman’s methodology. It also revealed that the esthetics of “device theater” can extend beyond devices, to incorporate and even manipulate the dynamics of personal inter-function. Do the performers then themselves become devices?

Peter Frank