New York

En Garde Arts, At the Chelsea

The Chelsea Hotel

The Chelsea Hotel in lower Manhattan is one of the legendary settings of American bohemianism. Its guest list reads like a who’s who of innovators as renowned for their roistering as for their art: Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix. Andy Warhol’s film The Chelsea Girls, 1967, paid tribute to the Chelsea’s history by creating a contemporary version of its near-mythic ambience, and set the conceptual stage for the hotel’s most bizarre act yet, the Sid Vicious-Nancy Spungen episode. So it must have seemed perfectly natural to En Garde Arts, a site-specific theatrical organization, to commission performances to be presented in the Chelsea rooms.

The group presented two different programs of three works each. By the last weekend of performances, the New York City Fire Department had forced the events out of the hotel because of safety violations. That weekend’s show—the one I attended—inadvertently became a ’60s-era throwback: an offbeat performance in search of a venue. The audience gathered in the Chelsea’s lobby, where it was regaled with the convoluted tales of Anne Hamburger, the event’s organizer. She described trying to balance esthetic and bureaucratic requirements (one night, she managed to stage part of the program in the hotel lobby), then marched the audience to a near-by private, very contemporary loft, in which chairs had been set up. At the Chelsea turned into About the Chelsea, as the hotel’s now-distanced presence could only be evoked by the three performers, Ann Carlson, Frank Maya, and John Kelly. While the general seediness and weird decor of the Chelsea was definitely missed (the art hanging in the hotel’s lobby must be some of the worst ever committed), the strangeness of a living-room-turned-stage more than made up for the loss. Stripped of their principal prop—the Chelsea Hotel room—the individual performers nevertheless successfully negotiated the tricky problem of using intimate personal space as a stage (another typical ’60s-early ’70s performance situation).

Carlson’s presentation, aimed at raising the ghosts of the Chelsea, achieved a supra-resonance by referring to a Chelsea doubly missing: both lost in the past and absent from the program’s ad hoc location. Her Embedded was a punning haiku of an action. While an offstage couple read from the works of noted Chelsea authors, Carlson, buried under pounds of dirt piled on a bed, slowly twitched herself to an upright position. The piece’s eeriness was only compounded by its living room context. In Letters from Dead People, Maya walked a narrow line between standup comedy and performance improvisation as he read mostly humorous, often bitchy fictional complaints from Hollywood and rock stars in heaven. The setting was too informal for schtick and too formal for casual spontaneity; Maya copped an attitude that carefully blended both qualities. A Way with Words allowed Kelly to pile up absurdities of persona to a ridiculous degree. He played a number of bizarrely juxtaposed characters: Dagmar Onassis doing Joni Mitchell, with a band (shown on an accompanying videotape) consisting of Georgia O’Keeffe on keyboards and Neil Young on guitar. With a few emblematic props—cactus, blonde wig, hippie-ish shawl, large candle—and a deadpan attitude that read as the deepest of ironic poses, Kelly effectively reduced Mitchell’s musical career to a complete joke. His precisely accurate parody simply duplicated Mitchell’s favorite vocal tricks (especially her signature break between registers) and allowed the quotation to be transformed into senselessness. All in all, this quoting of the Chelsea in a literally out-of-context program was a worthy addition to the hotel’s legend.

John Howell