New York

Rose English

Just Above Midtown Gallery

A folding chair on a podium less than a queen-size bed, flanked by a pair of projectors, close but off-podium, one on either side like potted trees. The performer, in a fancy historical courtlike costume, with this wide striped bag for trousers that ends in snug elastics high on her thighs, turns on the projectors, then steps onto the platform and installs herself on the throne. Rose English makes herself comfortable and puts on a long black beard; the projector casts a magnificent shadow of her profile on the wall. Down on the floor in front is a huge trunk with the lid ajar. A traveling king, no doubt. The head of stage, we learn from her words, travels around a lot, giving his performance in many cities. “He” speaks with a voice of assurance; it must come from settling down in the chair. She has me thinking of a doctor, that velvety balm, he knows what’s good for me and all I have to do is trust him, a man at the pinnacle of his career and a father to boot—maybe. She crosses, recrosses her legs with the ostentatious ease of one who is claiming his place in this world and then some. It’s a throne and there are no burning logs in the trunk, but I am beginning to understand about Fireside Chats. It really shows on bare legs I guess. At times she would make her voice deeper, but I don’t think it could have been much. What accounts for the sound of mellow authority is something in the pattern, a pompous lilt, and it seems wonderfully incongruous in a woman.

Whenever another prop is wanted she has to get off the platform to burrow in the trunk. It holds rather too many clothes; she is spilling them all over the floor, picking and occasionally offering a polite explanation of what it is she is discarding. Very incidentally, she’s ransacking. A tacky golden-paper crown turns up, fit for a Dairy Queen. Without hesitation she takes the crown to the chair. She wants to use it but what could one do with it? Reluctantly she puts it on her head for a while, later passing it briefly over her sex. For a time she wears a gorgeous horsetail; while it is all new to her she pulls it forward to her lap where she examines the hair and pats it. She takes the beard off again. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything definite. She does it mainly because you can’t really tell which way it is better; that’s the trouble with props. At any rate it does not simply restore the woman. She is the male doctor or lawyer or touring actor any time she wants, and there have been gender changes before; there is one every time she goes to the trunk. At the end English attacks the chair and a pile of costumes, undoes her set, rejects and confuses the role-clothes, topples the seat of authority.

She is great at false starts. The best ones are those that get off to a good start and take you in. Readjusting the projectors, she says something like: “Lighting is an essential part of any stage event. Remember this is a crucial factor in the impression you create with the audience. Always make sure of the lighting arrangements before you begin your act.” The performance is shot through with such directions from the actor’s manual. At one point she says: “If you have completely lost your audience, don’t panic. Stop doing whatever it is that you have been doing. Think of something new and pleasing that will win back their attention.” She gets off the platform and leaves the space with the audience, disappearing briefly into the long passage to the dressing room. Audience and set are deserted, with no instructions as to what to do or expect.