New York

Leo Bassi, Nero's Last Folly

Perry Street Theatre

Leo Bassi began by complaining about the description of him as “Italy’s favorite clown-terrorist,” maintaining that if such a title belonged to anyone, it was Mussolini. Behind the vaudevillian veneer, however, Bassi’s show examined the power dynamic in a performer/audience relationship, revealing it to be much like that between dictator and silent majority. We, the spectators, were soon implicated in our willingness to remain passive, to be dominated. After all, we’d come to the theater knowing that in every performance, Bassi hits one spectator in the face with a cream pie and threatens to burn down the house. Usually it’s performers who speak of motivation, but Nero’s Last Folly, 1989, forced the audience to question theirs.

On the stage sat a red velvet chair atop a dais: a throne. Bassi began by marching down the aisle to the tune of something imperial, glaring at individual spectators like a crazed butcher inspecting the herd at a slaughterhouse. The theater was small enough to put at least half the audience within his grasp. Then, once onstage, he spun around, spurting water from his attache case over the first few rows. Dressed like a businessman, Bassi calmly reminded us of what he was about to do with the pie and the fire. He wanted us to feel “not totally in control.” He wanted to get us embarrassed, in touch with suppressed feelings. Then, he gave us a chance to escape, with full refunds. Nobody left. Bassi cackled demonically and shouted for the house manager to lock the exits, which quickly slammed shut behind us. Despite all warnings, we had empowered a maniac and were now responsible for whatever ensued—or so Bassi implied, leaping gleefully to his feet with the cry, “You know what’s going to happen!”

He presented the pie-in-the-face routine as a human sacrifice, streaking his own face with shaving-cream war paint, yelping, dancing wildly, and flinging aside the chairs in the empty first row, where no one had the nerve to sit. He seemed capable of savagery as he worked his way up the aisle, thrusting the pie at several people before selecting his victim. It could have been any of us, and the adrenalin level in the crowd was almost palpable. “You were pleased to see him get it,” Bassi declared after taking a Polaroid of the cream-faced victim. And he was right, of course. Breathing our sighs of relief, comfortably resettled in our usual voyeur positions, we’d had our cathartic moment. Bassi handed the Polaroid souvenir to the victim, telling him: “You have given pleasure to 49 other people.”

Throughout the piece, Bassi moved between a rational and irrational self. He would explain what his actions meant; for example, the pie had turned Nero’s Last Folly from a theater piece into a real event. Bassi’s fire-breathing act created flames intense enough to throw heat to the back of the theater. He then came toward someone in an aisle seat, ready to incinerate him. But he didn’t. (Theater is so limited, he griped.) But he expressed a desire to singe someone’s jacket. That would make him memorable, like Nero—another Italian whose act wasn’t about entertainment.

Bassi’s show actually became more conventionally entertaining as it progressed. After the pie and the fire, however, I was skeptical at his announcement that he would now juggle a piano with his feet, and that it might hit some people in the front rows and kill them if he wasn’t careful. What he then juggled was more like a large box than a piano, but he flipped and spun it with great skill, only later revealing that he had grown up a fifth-generation circus performer. While quite funny, Bassi’s show had the disquieting immediacy of the Theater of Cruelty. It brought to mind one of Antoine Artaud’s essays, in which he argued, “As long as the theater limits itself to showing us intimate scenes from the lives of a few puppets, transforming the public into Peeping Toms, it is no wonder the elite abandon it and the great public looks to the movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfactions, whose intentions do not deceive them.”

C. Carr