New York

Ann Magnuson


Ann Magnuson, prime mover of the early Club 57 performances, queen of theme-night events around town, and curator of variety shows like last season’s “Performance Rites” at P.S. 1 (four Sundays of “serious fun” with some hundred performers), has lately been perfecting and presenting a repertory of solo pieces. These “characters” are caricatures of female roles drawn from pop culture—more specifically, from pop media. There’s “Tammy Fay,” a gospel singer modeled after the PTL “Praise The Lord” Club TV hostess; a foul-mouthed Hollywood starlet; and a rock chick who fronts a heavy-metal band called Vulcan Death Grip. Magnuson alters her appearance for each role with costumes and wigs, assembles the appropriate props, and reproduces her model’s behavior with knowing perfection.

Because her sources are pop-culture items which are already exaggerated parodies in themselves, there’s a definite whiff of camp in the air. But these performances also hook up with the current craze for recontextualization, which quotes cultural clichés in order to examine them. Magnuson plays her parts “straight,” with little overt commentary, thereby creating an ambiguous zone in which both to play the role and to play at it (rather as movie stars simultaneously play a role while remaining themselves). If Cindy Sherman’s photographs are a distanced, philosophical, tasteful version of the inquiry into media images of women, then Magnuson’s performances display an immediate, instinctive, go-for-broke entertainment approach to similar questions. She revels in the contradictions implicit in female stereotypes. Of course, she knows exactly what she’s up to—“serious fun”—even as she downplays the art involved (“It helps not to think of it as art”).

In Upwardly Mobile, at Danceteria, Magnuson presented a cocktail-lounge chanteuse act in one of this rock club’s small elevators. The tiny cubicle (load: 15 passengers) was converted into a mini-disco with blue fluorescent lights, a spinning mirrored globe with spotlight, and the covers of dozens of mid-’60s Muzak-style albums (Ray Coniff, Herb Alpert, Percy Faith, Mantovani) stuck to the walls and ceiling. Magnuson, as “Sunny Dunes,” stood in one corner done up in a bouffant hairdo and, at first, a red cocktail dress; sipping champagne, she sang along with a tinny cassette recording of easy-listening instrumentals. Subtitled “Close Encounters with the Very Few,” Upwardly Mobile was cleverly organized into sets of songs incorporating costume changes and based on different themes: “Torah, Torah, Torah” featured Exodus, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Way We Were; “Bond-Age” included Get Smart, You Only Live Twice, and Goldfinger; “Short and Sweet” turned out to be Sunny, Windy, Alfie, and Honey.

Like Bill Murray in his lounge-lizard act, Magnuson duplicated every cliché known to third-rate cocktail lounge entertainers: ultra-sincere vocal delivery, melodramatic gestures, and inane between-songs patter. Occasionally she sprang an openly satirical set piece, such as slow-motion running in place to the theme from Chariots of Fire. Among the best things that set Upwardly Mobile apart from TV comedy was its unusual location and its length: this elevator-cum-nightclub traveled Danceteria for some five hours. The early sets were packed with the Club 57 faithful, who lapped up every nuance of Magnuson’s practiced, emblematic, and knowing delivery of lounge clichés and ’60s schlock sincerity; as the evening went on Upwardly Mobile’s audience became average patrons simply trying to get from floor to floor on an average weekend night in a crowded rock club. When they unexpectedly found themselves jammed into an offbeat microcosm of their larger environment they experienced a humorous double take: the satire itself, and the unexpectedness of its location. Performances like this might be expected on TV, but certainly not in elevators. Upwardly Mobile was both an easily grasped delight and a surprising event.

John Howell