Ann Magnunson, Transmissions

Alice Tully Hall

After years of late-night club shows and occasional museum gigs, character chameleon Ann Magnuson brought her one-woman revue of multiple personae (with a minor cast of supporting players as a sort of decor/chorus) to its biggest venue yet, a Lincoln Center stage. A conceptual humorist who thinks in quotes, Magnuson presented her latest work, Transmissions, 1987, as a “live” version of a television broadcast. Transmissions was both a send-up of a TV-besotted culture and a sincere revel in its absurdities, for Magnuson actually likes the characters and themes she ridicules. Here she appeared as a backwoods female evangelist named “Alice Tully Hall” who leads her family flock of hillbilly “Halls”—Jerry, Fawn, Monte, et al.—in satellite-dish worship. Becoming electronically possessed and speaking in tongues by spouting fragments of TV gibberish, “Alice” then gave way, through rapid, onstage switches of wigs and costumes, to a series of wildly disparate characters, as if she were being mentally channel-switched: “Kimberly Crump,” an unctuous yuppie newscaster, who turned into a vicious “Squeaky Fromme” (one of Charles Manson’s “love dolls”), who then became “Raven,” the raunchy female singer of “Vulcan Death Grip,” a heavy-metal band.

Magnuson’s penchant for double-and triple-layering of structures and attitudes is what sets her apart from the herd of nominally similar standup comedians and single-minded monologuists. Demonstrating real acting ability, she truly inhabits her various pop-culture stereotypes at the same time that she comments on them through expert gestural mimicry and authentic-sounding but self-revealing dialogue. Because the individual riffs are more ambitious than simple comedy, there is a corresponding dramatic payoff perhaps best described by the title of the performance series of which Transmissions was a part: “Serious Fun!”

Surprisingly, her “let’s put on a show” insouciance and biting satirical skits played as well on a huge scale as in the small-time performance cabarets. And, despite the success of her superb “Made for TV” half-hour videotape (produced by Tom Rubnitz), and the obvious affinity her ideas have for television, Magnuson “live” remains a performance experience without equal. Though a television version of Transmissions would have allowed for the editing of material and some less awkward transitions between scenes, even cable would have had a hard time with broadcasting the performance’s relentlessly scabrous dialogue and, more important, capturing the sense of moment-to-moment provocation that Magnuson personifies. She loves to stir up discomfort. There’s a constant feeling that the stage “Magnuson” might burst forth as anybody at any time, and do almost anything—much of which is simultaneously hilarious and anxiety-causing. Toward the end of the revue, Magnuson/Hall said quietly, “It’s cool to hate everything, but I’m sick of it. . . I need something to believe in.” The audience took it as her best joke yet—but the confession lingered in the air uneasily after the initial laughter had subsided. This and other deceptively casual/complex moments that cropped up throughout Transmissions effectively conveyed the essential tragicomedy of our post-Modern times.

Reviewed by John Howell.