New York

The Birth of the Poet

Brooklyn Academy Of Music

This “opera” was the wildest collaboration yet staged in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s pack-happy Next Wave series, since the production’s principals—director Richard Foreman, librettist Kathy Acker, composer Peter Gordon, and set-and-costume-designer David Salle—would admit to no collaboration at all.

Set in three “traumatic” periods of history—New York City in the near future after a nuclear-plant explosion, the falling Roman empire, and modern-day Iran—the various elements of The Birth of the Poet mimicked the anarchic subject matter by their complete independence of one another. The result was a confusingly incoherent expression of an incoherent world, a theatrical chaos that succeeded only in adding more murk rather than any insight. This exercise in imitative fallacy stands in stark contrast to the work of our contemporary master of dramatic nihilism, Samuel Beckett, who exerts maniacal control over every detail of text and staging, the better to express the inexpressible. The Birth of the Poet wanted less subject and more art.

There were ideas, ideas every where, but not a thought to think. Kathy Acker’s cartoonish text, like all her writings a pastiche of styles and voices with a heavy emphasis on the blunt and the lurid, divided itself into techno-babble for Act I, intellectual porno-speak in Act II, and political non sequiturs in Act III. Overall, the language was so earnestly “decadent” in a classically European avant-garde mode that it often was unintentionally hilarious. Gordon’s score, keyed to nothing in particular at any given moment, drifted into aural memory with only general impressions of its sprechstimme (sung speech), electronic static, and fragments of exciting, moving musicus interruptus.

But director Foreman suffered the most. The usually authoritative control freak (he designs and executes everything in his Ontological-Hysteric theater productions) was reduced to a pathetic bachelor of performance art, stripped bare of his favorite theatrical devices except for a few vestigial gestures. The stagehands moving scenery while the play continued, the blast of light into the audience’s eyes, and the strange props (golf carts, large combs, dancing ears of corn) were strained reminders of the playful dramatic mania of his own works. Without a structured context, his contribution was reduced to an aimless, clumsy-looking choreography that stranded the performers in mechanical sequences of posing, orating, and costume-changing. While Salle’s costumes didn’t add much one way or the other, his sets were another matter. Their giganticism (huge paintings, swollen violins and harp sculptures, the skeletal metal fragments of a titanic human figure) and their active presence—drops and flats rose and fell and rotated almost continuously—created some sense of purposeful motion.

The Birth of the Poet gathered together artists who are notorious for their various forms of decadence but totally failed in any attempt to fuse their collective energies into a meta-decadent spectacle. What was intended to be a corrosive blast of Artaudi an bile turned out to be only an empty Warholian fart of impotent hooey.

John Howell