John Kelly and Huck Snyder


Performance art’s attack on theater has often been an all-out war of concept versus drama. In the “that’s entertainment” mood of the ’80s, some performance artists have reached a separate peace with drama to produce performances with conceptual content and go-for-broke theatrics. Diary of a Somnambulist, 1986, a collaborative performance and exhibition by performer john Kelly and painter Huck Snyder, is one of the most fully realized performances to emerge from this detente Constructed from a catalogue of appropriated expressionist attitudes and images arrayed in dialectical patterns, Diary of a Somnambulist was densely packed with ideas. Yet it was staged and performed with a finely tuned, knowingly melodramatic sensibility that brought its heavyweight material to theatrical life. This “somnambulist” was a very lively subject indeed.

Its principal conceit was derived from the German Expressionist sociopsychological fable The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Kelly perfectly mimicked the film’s homicidal zombie Cesare in both appearance and body language, just as the crazily tilted sets by Snyder duplicated the decor of the film. But Diary of a Somnambulist didn’t limit itself to recreating its already overstuffed source. In this version, the Modernist maniac Cesare occupied the stage with another sleepwalker, Lady MacBeth (Marleen Menard), creating an impacted set of opposites: male/female, random urban homicide/calculating regicide, schizophrenia/psychosis. The characters’ activity was set to a continuous soundtrack of similarly contrasted music: Henry Purcell and Bernard Hermann (who wrote the score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1956]), Georges Bizet and Igor Stravinsky. Technically, the staging alternated between film and live action, static tableaux and dance/mime movement.

But this conceptual agenda was so masterfully put into dramatic form that what played in the mind were striking moments of creepy eeriness and hysterical humor. With a ghostly hand slowly appearing over the edge of a tilted rooftop, a falsetto aria about amour, and an angular dance miming the E shapes of an eye-test chart, Kelly created a feeling of off-kilter disturbance. Sometimes, as in any melodrama, weirdness and humor merged, as in Kelly’s bizarre “Cesare-walk,” a scuttling tiptoe with his hands clenched on his butt.

Diary of a Somnambulist’s only problem was in knowing how to wrap up its overwrought action. After a succession of vivid scenes, the piece simply stopped. With no clear narrative line there was really no way for it to develop. Yet like a deliciously disturbing horror movie, this insomniac’s hypnotic nightmare was so wonderfully unsettling that one didn’t want it to end.

The Limbo Theatre was also turned into an exhibition hall for this performance, extending the Caligarish themes onto every available surface. Kelly’s storyboards and choreographic charts were visual marvels in themselves, and illuminating in reference to the show, as were John Dugdale’s ’30s-style photographs of Kelly as Cesare. Snyder’s combine paintings, black and white canvases with fragments of painted wood attached, were serviceably atmospheric.

John Howell