New York

John Malpede

Franklin Furnace

The one-person show has been a staple of performance from the start—like the solo turn in theater, a pure breath of personal expression. In the late ’70s one-artist live shows began to include mixed media—film, slides, audiotape, musical and electronic instruments, video—to expand the range and capabilities of the solo vision. These high tech performances have grown up into something like live movies (the most sophisticated example so far is Laurie Anderson’s complex yet still homemade multimedia extravaganzas). Now, the inevitable reaction has emerged in “poor theater” performance, in which the solo performer appears unadorned, sans props, media, or sets, as a straight-talking monologuist. A new interest in comedy (a recurrent development in any depression-type time) introduces another influence—the tradition of the solo stand-up routine, the individual alone on stage with only his or her physical mannerisms and wits. The most visible and popular of these performers is surely Spalding Gray, whose recent retrospective of monologues at the Performing Garage ran for months and attracted large crowds to hear a man seated at a desk tell tales about himself.

Others are at work in the area of “poor” performance, and John Malpede’s No Frills: A Generic Performance was a witty, well-played, and consistently provocative example. Conceptually, Malpede walked a tightrope between presenting “a good, basic performance at an affordable price,” and commenting on the very conventions he was using. A subtextual theme arose in his many references to packaging and selling; here his jibes gained a dimension in that arts organizations, especially those nonprofit ones that present the hopelessly uneconomical medium of performance, have been forced to adopt some of the mechanisms of popular-media advertising. That such tactics can be adapted to such an informal, quirky, personal, and finally unsellable product as performance is an endlessly ironic contradiction which Malpede pointed out time and again.

In No Frills Malpede first appeared as “Malpede,” a congenial performer who, like a combination talk show host/salesman, spelled out in detail the show to come. Using the example of no-frills, no-brand, generic consumer products, he promised to deliver the satisfaction and nutritional value of a no-frills product—here, a performance. Malpede also pledged real value for the performance dollar, a sly dig at some of the more indulgent exercises known to performance audiences. He did promise certain genre conventions (yes, props would be manipulated—here, a toy gun and some croissants); others would be avoided (no, he wouldn’t undress—a tired idea). This mixed-metaphor monologue of conceptual-performance palaver and advertising sales pitch continued as Malpede shook hands with himself and assumed the role bf his “guest,” the Professor. This academic huckster, talking equal parts pop-psych babble and self-help jargon in a “trust-me” accent which sounded like that of a Jewish Jimmy Stewart, lectured, gave nonsensical audience quizzes, and raised questions which he wouldn’t answer (“it’s in the book—buy it”), all to promote this “book,” Packaging and Self-Esteem.

Malpede served up another gloss on the same subject as a second “guest,” the owner-operator of a carny game called “Sink-A-Sucker/Dunk-A-Dope.” This alienated, hostile, lower-middle-class roustabout was a negative illustration of the Professor’s ridiculous theories and an ironic commentary on their “usefulness”—this guy would never buy any self-help product. In coveralls, Malpede sat on a seat over a tank of water and delivered a run-on history of his work accidents and other bad luck, intermittently daring the audience to dunk him by hitting a target with softballs. But when a viewer stepped up and scored three bulls-eyes in three throws (a ringer?), Malpede was not dunked but continued his rant. The game was fixed; this character’s idea of business included the concept of deceit in packaging

This more complex, less cartoony, and obviously victimized (and victimizing) outsider was an unexpected change in tone in a performance that began as good-natured comic entertainment, but it provided a provocative climax in its embodiment of the performance’s esthetic and social themes. Like all good performers, Malpede delivered more than he promised.

John Howell