Michael Portnoy, Character Assassination, 2017. Performance view, Volksbühne am Rudolfplatz, Cologne, April 18, 2017. Photo: Roel Weenink.

THERE’S NO SATIRE QUITE LIKE THE PRESENT, a fact that poses a funny challenge to contemporary comedy—or at least threatens it with redundancy. How to harness the power of a joke, when a joke has been made all-powerful?

Enter the great Absurdist, performance artist Michael Portnoy. His latest piece is titled Character Assassination, and it is (in part) a comedy heralding the end of comedy—or at least pointing to the rafters from which it’s hanging itself. Written in collaboration with Dan Fox (art critic, coeditor of Frieze, and author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters), this deft and dizzying show riffs on the form of the late-night satirical news program. For a little over an hour, Portnoy delivers a monologue fueled by the bugaboolean logics that have long trumped popular political discourse, in “the only show about you and nobody else but YOU!” Sitting behind a large desk facing a teleprompter and camera, Portnoy is simultaneously projected onto a large screen on stage; you can watch him live, or “broadcast,” with video clips and graphics edited into the frame. Lest we believe he’s all about fun and games, Portnoy reads his news against a backdrop of a city in ruins.

“Let me tell you,” he says near the top of the show, “trust has been left in the dust. If you’re gonna survive these days, you’ve gotta be one helluva paranoid android. Nobody is who they say they are.” With that, Portnoy plants the seeds for what might be called “The Conspiracy of the Self” and takes us on a ride through the rabbit holes of the information superhighway. He weaves a story that begins with a guy named Rigoberto and ends in an homage to Don Quixote, infamous battler of windmills. He sews doubts about the nature of theater itself. “How can you trust anyone in a place that’s built to provide a stage on which people pretend to be other people?” he shoots. “This building is a machine for lying!” Imagine: Even our fictions lie to us.

Character Assassination is a play about language—our most elastic, plastic tool—and how it does the bidding of its user. Through the pens of Portnoy and Fox, mimicking the archness of comedy news, words perform all manner of acrobatics, pushing logic to take flying leaps into nothingness, without a net. Talk is cheap, but meaning is even cheaper: “I’m here to reveal to you tonight that we’re actually starved of context,” Portnoy explains to his audience.

That context has been rationed by governments, hoarded by politicians, kept under lock and key by the church and state in favor of pushing a relentless junk-food diet of CONTENT. You can content-generate some of the people some of the time, but you can’t contextualize all of the people all of the time.

We rabidly consume information to feel informed, but what do we know, and how do we know it? In answer, Portnoy conducts a sort of semiotic equation, letting the x in “context” equal the n in “content,” and then adding them together to produce one of the most enviable (and much-needed) neologisms since Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness” in 2005: CONTENXT (pronounced: con-tengst). What is contenxt? It’s the perfect marriage of content and context that produces a reasonable understanding of the information presented. (At least, that’s what I think it is. Constant audience confusion is a byproduct of the piece’s tonal shiftiness.)

From there, Portnoy rips information from several audience members’ Facebook pages, remixing their posts and photos to weave an ever-unraveling tale of intrigue. (Warning: If you friend Portnoy on Facebook in the weeks before his show, you risk becoming one of his targets—i.e. you risk becoming content.) In the iteration I saw, Portnoy picked out Jan Hoeft and showed us a clip from a film he’d made. He played back the voice of Theresa Schuleit, founder of the Festival for Applied Acoustics in Beirut, and Yves Sandwichi, almost-but-not-quite his real name, whose character is presented as a series of fictional listicles: “Ten Things Yves Can Tell You In Bed That Will Make You Lose Weight Instantly”; “Five Gestures Yves Has Made That Will Make You Embarrassed to Ever Use Your Hands Again.”

What propels Character Assassination is of course character proliferation in larger culture: The overproduction of selves fertilized by our online feeds. Portnoy isn’t after people; he’s after their personae, mining what we think of as “proof” of who we are. Portnoy doesn’t disclose embarrassing truths about his victims, or if he does, we’re none the wiser, so super loopy are his fabrications. Character Assassination could risk more in this regard, charging the air with greater discomfort at who and what might be made public during the performance.

Then again, that threat in the end felt like a dupe—a clever trick to reveal one of the most uncomfortable truths of all: That there is a banality to our so-called public personae, to how we imagine and present ourselves inside the given algorithms. It’s all theater, in effect, but not all of it’s entertaining. And I wonder if Portnoy and Fox’s extrapolated fictions—twirling, vertiginous, and very funny—mask the fact that most social networkers portray themselves in flattened, flattering ways, tastefully serving themselves up for the middling palates of public consumption. Was there any funny business to be found? Any radical acts of selfhood? Perhaps the real question is: What do we learn about each other when mediated online that we might not otherwise in person? After all, contenxt is everything.

Jennifer Krasinski

Character Assassination premiered on April 18th at the Volksbühne am Rudolfplatz in Cologne as part of Pluriversale VI, organized by the Akademie der Künste der Welt.

MPA with Amapola Prada and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg, Orbit, 2017. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 15, 2017. MPA, Amapola Prada, and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg. Photo: Paula Court.

ON FEBRUARY 19 MPA, an artist based in Joshua Tree, California, completed (along with colleagues Amapola Prada and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg) an ersatz ten-day residency at the Whitney Museum titled Orbit. For that period, the three women lived sequestered in a thirty-six-foot-long by three-foot-wide sliver of the Museum’s theater facing the Hudson River. They resided like zoological specimens in this glass-enclosed box, isolated from yet completely exposed to the public during museum open hours. Dressed in red outfits that accessorized the vermillion infrastructure of their capsule, they lived on supplies sheltered with them, while dry composing, recycling their grey water, and bottling their urine for the length of their seclusion.

Orbit was meant to emulate, in metaphoric fashion, conditions that might occur on future human-occupied colonies on Mars. On the final evening of the project, the artists, in front of an audience of about 150 spectators, premiered Assembly, an hour-and-a-half-long event that culminated their mission. As audience members entered the theater and took their seats facing each other across a central runway, the three women were seen in their crimson cage, laying about on a platform while slowly massaging one another to recorded audio of orgasmic moans. Eventually the women stood with their backs to the audience, facing the river and the lights of New Jersey, rhythmically swaying under intense red light. When the house lights came up, the women began a bucket brigade, moving grey water in five gallon jugs, dozens of mason jars of urine, sealed five gallon pails of what was later revealed to be composted feces, and other waste products along the narrow corridor of their capsule to an “offstage” storage area located behind the door of the cabin.

The women then emerged from a door on the audience’s side of the glass, thus ending their period in “orbit.” Moving in trancelike fashion down the runway, they walked to the back of the room. MPA, a tall blonde woman in her thirties, addressed the audience from the rear of the theater, intoning a few disconnected words about space, the future, and Mars. At moments, her speech was interrupted by spastic body contortions and gruntlike vocalizations, signaling that not all was right in her reintegration process.

The three women reconvened at a front stage that had been set up for a panel discussion. They seated themselves on stools before the site of their former detention. Marcus-Sonenberg secured two wooden clothespins to the front of a red crochet parejo she had donned, while adjusting the red heels and red fishnet tights she had also quickly put on. MPA threw on a dress, literally—a red sequin floor-length gown still on its hanger hung around her neck. Jay Sanders, curator of the show, grabbed a mic and began to emcee questions from previously selected members of the audience like artists Martha Wilson, Malik Gaines, and A. L. Steiner. The artists debriefed the audience about the ten-day experience, speaking on their isolation, the boredom of ten days without electronic media, the exhibitionism of the project, the pitfalls of collective living, providing explicit details about their shit-management protocols. Yet when questions were solicited from the wider audience the Q&A began to get a little bizarre, with audio distortions affecting MPA’s answers. As the other two women stood up to leave the panel, she began writhing atop the chairs with her dress hiked up around her, her red sports bra visible along with a wireless mic receiver tightly taped around her waist like a bondage device. As she stumbled away the three women returned, calmly hauling all the urine jars and waste buckets onto the stage, forming an orderly and quite substantial stack of refuse.

MPA with Amapola Prada and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg, Orbit, 2017. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 13, 2017. MPA. Photo: Paula Court.

And then all hell broke loose.

As the track of sex sounds once again became audible, the women began simulating masturbation—MPA silently humping the wall stage right, Prada gyrating her hips and loudly groaning as she faced the audience, Marcus-Sonenberg back in the capsule contorting her body as though in mid-coitus. MPA’s thrusts became masochistic to the point of hysterical violence, and she began to beat her hips in a kind of frenzied self-brutalization. Marcus-Sonenberg writhed and shook her limbs like an upturned beetle. Prada bounced like a pogo stick, her onanistic grunts becoming a ferocious screeching as she moved down the runway to the theater’s rear, the rhythmic cries initially comic and then terrifying in their guttural power. Eventually, finding herself in the center of the audience, for several minutes Prada channeled what seemed to be the excruciating pain of childbirth, the orgasmic feeling of sex having pickled into a fairly accurate expression of the hideous pain of labor, and as she squatted and screamed it was hard not to feel one too was squeezing out a huge ass baby cranium. The sights and sounds of three women performing sex to the point of demented pain for ten minutes was agonizing to witness.

And indeed the audience sat in stunned silence for a minute after the “climax” as the three women silently filed out of the theater and the house lights again brightened. The exhibitionism of their ten-day fishbowl existence, a performance of the totally administered life of the astronaut who is scrutinized and monitored while completely dependent on preplanned resources and technology to breathe, eat, and shit, had erupted in an id-like expression of sexual longing, self-harm, violence, hysteria, and madness. Where Orbit gave us the mundane reality of daily life in capsule form, in Assembly MPA and company desublimated the paddock-like constraint on the body and mind inflicted by the isolation in the spaceship. They made a persuasive case for staying the fuck out of outer space.

Eva Díaz

Orbit ran February 9 through 19 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

  • William Forsythe, Pas/Parts 2016, 2016. Performance view, January 23, 2016, San Francisco Ballet. Carlo DiLanno and Sofiane Sylve. Photo: Erik Tomasson.

  • William Forsythe, Pas/Parts 2016, 2016. Performance view, January 23, 2016, San Francisco Ballet. Photo: Erik Tomasson.

  • William Forsythe, Pas/Parts 2016, 2016. Performance view, January 23, 2016, San Francisco Ballet. Photo: Erik Tomasson.

WILLIAM FORSYTHE’S PAS/PARTS 2016 begins like an about-to-happen assignation at the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool. The air is dusky blue; the mood is at once alienated and electric. A lone woman is still, and then gloriously in motion, kinetic impulses flickering and undulating through her body with crystalline propulsion.

The woman is Sofiane Sylve, the imperiously grand San Francisco Ballet principal. She is the cold-hot center of this episodic ensemble ballet and, like Thom Willems sinuous, spectacle-courting score, she is only warming up.

Forsythe made Pas/Parts for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1999 and last year reimagined it as Pas/Parts 2016 for the San Francisco Ballet. To see it the weekend before last, on a bill with Alexei Ratmansky’s smolderingly restrained Seven Sonatas, 2009, was to be reminded that ballet can in fact be a serious art form. Never mind that the program is called “Modern Masters” and includes a premiere by Yuri Possokhov titled Optimistic Tragedy, which I sat out in favor of a glass of champagne at the bar, accompanied by the memory of Bill Berkson declaring, with an air of obviousness, that he made it his business to skip everything but the Balanchine works.

It can be stupidly difficult to remember this about ballet, that it’s made for adults, by adults. I don’t mean all the fabulously strange oldies but goodies. I mean ostensibly contemporary work. The tiaras that refuse to die, perched atop tightly smiling faces. The swanning about in lieu of actual movement sequences. The veneer of emotionalism slathered over an absence of ideas: The emptiness can seem inevitable.

What a shame, given the authority-drunk, overexposed, nationalistic ways of this present moment, and ballet’s historical ability to address these very things. Pas/Parts 2016 seethes with power grabs, and sex, and sex as a very particular power grab. Bodies wield the spotlight with cool aggression, and then casually walk away from our gaze: the ultimate power play. As the great Forsythe interpreter Rosyln Sulcas has written, the ballet is steeped in “Forsythe’s canny understanding of the culture of the Paris Opera Ballet, with its formal hierarchies of grades and its deeply rooted competitiveness.”

So too is Forsythe extending the thorny balancing act between human dependency and isolation that Balanchine brilliantly exploited; Sylve, a French-born star who used to dance with New York City Ballet and has a deep understanding of such Balanchine studies of human nature as The Four Temperaments, 1946, is ideally suited to Forysthe’s choreography, which marries formal invention and good old razzle dazzle.

Seven Sonatas is a quieter but no less forceful machine. The structural sophistication, the decorous white costumes (by Holly Hynes), and the Scarlatti piano works (performed by Mungunchimeg Buriad) conspire to cloak the increasing weirdness at play in Ratmansky’s formations. There are only three couples: Sylve again, with Carlo Di Lanno; Frances Chung and Angelo Greco; Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh—all superb. Here is virtuosity that never fully announces itself, and a continually shifting view of human relations. It’s the sort of stunner that yields its secrets slowly. (I saw it years ago at American Ballet Theatre and wasn’t so taken with it; who knows what was wrong with me.)

The ballet tips occasionally into a self-conscious cuteness that is the Ratmansky go-to I like least. But mostly he and the dancers are mining (through rhythm hiccups, through syncopation and interruption, through torsos that pull one way while legs cut the other) competing desires that will not be reconciled. The deep longing here is not of the romantic love kind, and while watching it performed by this company in the gilded War Memorial Opera House—in a neighborhood teeming with the homeless and, of late, protests—my mind kept returning to the phrase “dancing on the deck of the Titanic.” The time is borrowed; the hour grows late.

Claudia La Rocco

Fail Safe


The Psychic Readings Co., The Failures, 2016. Performance view, November 4, 2016.

FAILURE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a ripe subject for theater. The stars don’t ever align for Romeo and Juliet. The three Prozorov sisters will never live happily ever after. Godot won’t arrive.

The world’s stage is no different. The current spectacle of the forty-fifth President—his sociopathic twists of fact and fiction, stories told to seize the spotlight, to succeed—promises no happy endings either. It is part of the dispirit of our age that we must recognize that certain people seek not only to align themselves with power and money, but, barring real access to these things, they land their pride on the right to entertainment. Call it zeitgeist, or writing our own fate, but three recent productions in New York took on the subjects of failure and entertainment and how, to some degree, one might triumph over, perhaps even trump, the endless onslaught of both.

“Here I am, a successful man, with a lotta good stuff going on, full of vigor and yeah, I have that little something.” So brags Ric (Ric Royer), the jittery-slick game-show host–cum–motivational speaker at the center of The Psychic Readings Co.’s sublimely absurd comedy-of-terrors, The Failures. Written by Royer and Peter Mills Weiss, the play is as crackerjack as it is crackpot, presenting for our viewing pleasure a pair of failures, played by Mills Weiss and Sarah Lamar as pitch-perfect portraits of deflation in gold-sequined sweatshirts and blue hospital pants. “They do not like their life,” explains Ric. “They don’t like being perpetually locked in an inescapable cycle of incapacity.” Tonight, we’re told, the failures will be given mundane tasks to perform. If they fail, then all remains as it is. If they succeed, they will unleash the wrath of Zothe (Anoushe Shoja)—“a merciless and heartless administrator of cosmic consequence”—on the hapless and unsuspecting Loth (Jon Swift), freshly plucked from the front row. No matter the outcome, the audience is, of course, encouraged to enjoy the show.

Needless to say, the failures fail. (It’s their destiny as well as their duty, after all.) We watch as Zothe shanks Loth in the kidneys with a screw, forces him to drink expired Drano, cuts off his thumb and shreds it between the whirring blades of a fan, sending pieces flying everywhere. As he’s tortured, Loth howls in mortal agony, spewing some of the play’s most disarmingly astute lines: “The real horror here is that it’s not experienced as horror, but as comedy!” and “It’s fear of failure that leads one to design systems in which failure is the desired outcome.”

“The key to success is failure!” sings the cast in the play’s buoyant but sinister denouement, which involves Zothe becoming “not weird anymore,” finding a romantic partner, and opening a chain of donut shops. As it turns out, success can seem a lot like failure, depending on how you look at it. As a monster, Zothe was at least charismatic, strange, determined. Now she’s smug, well-off, and not as fun to watch. Why choose success? As Loth says in the moments before his death: “There are only three independent impulses in the human nature! And none of them are to entertain! They are to survive, survive, survive.”

Forced Entertainment, Real Magic , 2016. Performance view, La MaMa Theater, New York, January 5, 2017. Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, and Jerry Killick. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Survive—of course we must—but to what end? There’s no mortal threat hanging over the three characters in Forced Entertainment’s exasperating comedy Real Magic. Rather, the condition in which company members Claire Marshall, Jerry Killick, and Richard Lowdon find themselves is that of eternal return, stuck as they are in an endless, tedious game show from which they cannot seem to free themselves. The consequence of their failure is repetition: They keep going round and round for more rounds. Think of it as Sartre’s No Exit for the twenty-four-hour infotainment era: It’s never made clear if an escape from all this canned dazzle is impossible, or if in truth, is “wanted.”

The game that Claire, Jerry, and Richard play seems designed to fail: They’re asked to read one another’s minds to guess the word that one of them is thinking. Each in their turn plays one of three roles: guesser, thinker, and host. The guesser has three chances to get it right, the thinker holds up a sign for the audience with their word written on it, and the host oversees the game. Claire’s word is CARAVAN. Jerry’s is ALGEBRA. Richard’s is SAUSAGE. Yet every time, every guesser guesses the same three wrong words—money, electricity, hole. After the game is lost they swap places and start all over again. The contradiction of their condition is that, of course, they play because they lose, and they lose because they play. Even as their patience, steam, and focus wane, they remain in the game. In fact, they can’t even cheat their way out of it.

Real Magic is in part a theatrical essay on one of the most bewitching forms in contemporary culture: the loop. As distinct from, say, Dante’s infamous circles, which led to deeper realms, a loop is stagnation in motion: self-arresting, ouroboric, collapsing backward and forward momentums into the same direction. A loop produces erosion, fatigue, confusion—a devolving that certainly incites change, though not the rousing kind. Forced Entertainment never lets up on this point, refusing to buoy the pummeling experience of watching the play by granting motivation or meaning to Claire, Jerry, and Richard. “Sometimes the answer to your problem is right in front of you,” says Claire as she and Jerry try to prompt Richard into just reading the sign when it’s his turn to guess. (He doesn’t.) Perhaps we’re to understand that one possible way forward—of up and out—is to simply pay better attention.

Philippe Quesne, La Mélancolie des dragons, 2015. Performance view, Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, Nanterre, France, January 6, 2015. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

A similar spirit possesses Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des dragons, a languorous and enchanting production that recalibrates the scales with which to measure magic and wonder, both in the theater and out in the world. Failure too kicks off this story: A stalled Volkswagen Rabbit has stranded a merry band of metalheads and their trailer in a snowy wood. They’re soon discovered by Isabelle, a mechanic—what luck!—who assumes they’re in a band. As it turns out, the men run a touring amusement park—we are independent, one explains—a series of spectacles that they offer to put on just for her. What unfolds is at once silly, sweet, and profound, as Isabelle (and we the audience) are treated to modest yet magnificent sights.

Their first trick: “Invisible Men,” an installation of wigs suspended on fishing wire, lit by stage lights, and blown around by a fan while loud music plays. Incredible, says Isabelle, agog. They show her how the trailer doubles as a library, housing a few stacks of art books, children’s books, and a copy of Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double. One machine fills the air with bubbles, another with smoke, a third with snow, “so that we can make winter in the summertime!” they tell Isabelle. Images of warm places appear in the cold landscape via a video projector. A bucket of water and a hose become a gurgling fountain. Enormous black plastic bags are inflated to become quivering monoliths in which the people move, but the floats stay in place.

The men explain every amusement as they go along, leaving no mystery as to how it’s all made. All the while, Isabelle oohs and ahhs, her amazement growing for the strange and funny show played before her. Seams out, the metalheads’ park creates real magic simply by failing illusion—or at least by proving that the power to produce wonder, via art, literature, theater, requires the eye of the beholder too. In other words, what we see is what we beget in the world. The only failure that must be guarded against is that of the imagination.

Jennifer Krasinski

The Psychic Readings Co.’s The Failures was presented on January 13 and 14 at Vital Joint as part of The Exponential Festival; Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic was presented from January 5 to 8 at La MaMa as part of P.S. 122’s 2017 COIL Festival; Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des dragons was presented from January 10 to 14 at the Kitchen as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.

Charlotte Moorman, Neon Cello, c. 1989, Plexiglas, neon tubing, and electrical parts, 48 1/2 x 16".

ONE TELEVISION MONITOR in “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s,” screened clips of Charlotte Moorman’s TV appearances. On the Merv Griffin Show in June 1967, Moorman performed John Cage’s 26’1.1499” for a String Player with the help of comedian Jerry Lewis. Holding a military-grade practice bomb that Moorman had converted into a cello, he asked the audiences, “Does she know I’m famous?” Gingerly, he kneeled down before her, his head bent toward her bare shoulders while she pulled a cello string taut up along his back, playing it with her bow. It’s a beguiling, confounding scene: Charlotte Moorman on Merv Griffin, interpreting a score by John Cage, treating Jerry Lewis as a human instrument—a role that, in previous renditions of 26’1.1499”, was filled by Nam June Paik, whose composition Opera Sextronique had landed Moorman in jail for indecent exposure the February prior, earning her the “topless cellist” notoriety that likely precipitated her booking on Merv Griffin in the first place.

This brief clip, funny and fraught, captures the complexities of “Charlotte’s Web.” Few figures are so exemplary of the neo-avant-garde’s sustained assault against modernist principles of medium specificity and artistic autonomy. A Juilliard-trained cellist, Moorman fused experimental composition with audio-visual theater; performed a repertoire of scores written by others; organized annual New York Avant Garde Festivals that assembled artists, musicians, and dancers from around the world in settings as varied as the Staten Island Ferry or Shea Stadium; and demonstrated a taste and talent for mobilizing technology toward spectacle and engaging audiences through mass media. From the start, she cultivated a sweetly demure and frankly sexual “Southern belle” persona, presenting herself in formal clothing or no clothing at all, which led to the catch-22 allegation that either she was a passive object deferring to the desires of her (mostly male) collaborators, or a narcissistic subject hiding behind shared authorship as an alibi for exhibitionism. (Should anyone believe we’ve moved past the era of judging women musicians for their sartorial choices, I recommend looking up Janet Malcolm’s recent New Yorker profile of virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang.) To untangle an incident like Moorman’s Merv Griffin spot, it’s helpful to look toward her personal copy of Cage’s 26’1.1499” score. In the exhibition’s catalogue, musicologist Jason Rosenholtz-Witt details how Moorman listed multiple solutions for each of the composition’s many technical challenges. This palimpsest of possibilities helped Moorman tailor her renditions to specific contexts, whether Carnegie Hall or Johnny Carson. However seemingly chaotic, her manhandling of Jerry Lewis on Merv Griffin followed fixed notations.

Nam June Paik, TV Bed, 1972–91. Performance view, Bochum Art Week, Bochum, West Germany, 1973. Charlotte Moorman. Photo: Hartmut Beifuss.

Rosenholtz-Witt’s discussion of 26’1.1499” is just one of several nuanced, informative analyses in the “Feast of Astonishments” catalogue. Musicologist Ryan Dohoney, for instance, decodes Moorman’s annotations to scores by Morton Feldman. On another register, art historian Hannah Higgins shows how Moorman planned the first Avant Garde Festival—its participants, publicity, personnel, and paraphernalia—on a single scribbled-over paper scrap. I point to these excellent contributions to raise a question: How can the sophistication of current scholarly approaches to the neo-avant-garde be better reflected in curatorial practice? That is, how does Dohoney’s expert reading of graphic scores, or Higgins’s attentiveness to hybrid forms of authorship, extend into an exhibition’s arrangement of objects in space? Organized by a team of curators at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, “Feast of Astonishments” falls into many familiar traps: an overreliance on placards to provide narration; low-hanging vitrines dense with documents and inimical to close study; displays that, without further contextualization, come off as relics, memorabilia, or props.

“Feast of Astonishments” is hardly the first exhibition to confront the difficulty of curating music. (Recall—as if you could forget—the Museum of Modern Art, New York’s deeply disheartening Björk retrospective.) An alternative approach might have showcased a fuller selection of her annotated scores, or more methodically parsed her individual collaborations, such as her technological experiments with Paik, her arrangements for photo-documentation with Peter Moore, her dialogue with Carolee Schneemann, or even her competition with that other indefatigable organizer, George Maciunas. It’s only through a canny focus on Moorman the interpreter, or Moorman the impresario, that an exhibition will offer much insight into Moorman the artist.

Colby Chamberlain

“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” ran September 8 through December 10 at the Grey Art Gallery in New York.

Richard Maxwell, Showcase, 2003. Performance view, Bern, 2004. Jim Fletcher. Photo: NYC Players.

YOU ARE MEETING A STRANGER AT THE HOTEL BAR. This is not your regular watering hole: velvet curtains, coffered ceilings, outstretched columns that hold up nothing. Everything is in the style of a ruin that doesn’t know it’s a ruin yet. You finger the thin straw plunged in a gin and tonic, unsure. Are you waiting to be found, or are you supposed to be looking?

On the eighth floor, the room is dark. Shuffling in, you glimpse the outline of a recumbent figure. When the lights come up, a man is lying naked on one of two beds, phone in hand. You wait for him to speak first.

His nakedness is not surprising (men often are when you go up to their rooms); his loneliness isn’t either. The man says he isn’t feeling well. He can’t even play with his penis. He wakes up cold, his nightgown is drafty, the dry air cracks his lips. A middle-aged businessman, there are a hundred other Willy Lomans like him down at the bar. But this man’s skin radiates unexpected softness. His name is Jim.

Jim likes to shit before showering, but can’t always. He likes to watch reruns of funny shows, but each time the credits roll, there’s another maw of emptiness. He has a shadow that follows him, matching his every move, except when it doesn’t. Atop the covers, both Jim’s and the shadow’s legs splay: Their feet overlap in a tender, impermanent alliance.

You can’t imagine anything more excruciating than having your murkier self externalized. It seems like Jim can’t either; when the shadow lopes off to the bathroom, he asks, “Should I really kill him?” The sound of a toilet flushing gives way to a chorus of nervy laughter.

Jim is at once Jim the businessman and Jim Fletcher, the stunning actor who wreaks quiet devastation. His shadow is a catsuited actor named Bob Feldman. This is both a hotel room encounter and a Richard Maxwell play called Showcase. It debuted in 2003, when it seemed like Bush II would be the worst president of your lifetime. Perhaps masculinity felt plush and laughable then, but Maxwell, the playwright and director, has always ambitiously scaled the lives of men.

His most recent work was The Evening, performed at the Kitchen in 2015. It took place on a stage that was also a dive, populated by two barflies, their waitress, and a band. Reviewers seemed displeased with the insinuation that Beatrice, played by Cammisa Buerhaus, was not only a bartender but also a prostitute. Throughout that play she longs to escape; she flatters, cajoles, and soothes the men around her. She freshens their beers and sits on their laps, but mostly, she listens. Until she grabs a gun.

Only a naïve moralist would find sex work more disconcerting than the exhausting labor of listening to men. How many Johns—or Willys or Jims—pay for time just to be heard, to be held?

Richard Maxwell, Showcase, 2003. Performance view, Bern, 2004. Jim Fletcher. Photo: NYC Players.

The Evening muscles its way into your thoughts from the moment Jim sits up, asking the crowd, “How ya’ll doing tonight?” Out of the hush that meets his direct address, you reply: “Good.” Now he is pointing, others are looking. You’re chastised for being “a troublemaker” in the tone that middle-aged businessmen reserve for younger women whose defiance entertains them.

Turning his attention away from you, Jim generously uses your humiliation as an object lesson, to pivot toward the principles of wielding dominance. This, after all, is how you make deals.

Showcase, too, was a kind of power move. It was made for the 2003 Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York, an annual networking event-cum-marketplace that takes place in drab hotel conference rooms, where artists brave the indignity of lanyard-strung nametags and vie for their work to be seen by venue representatives rushing between works in progress.

There, perhaps you object thoroughly to the selling and being sold. You also want desperately to be chosen. It is this contradiction that Jim lives three times a night.

After all, the playbook providing white men with the bluster of prerogative and unimpededness is just that, a script. Jim knows his own contrivance—Fletcher knows it too—and both character and actor allow the veneer to fissure, delicately. Jim’s monologue turns to voyeurism, to the enhanced capacities of looking outward by turning off the lights within, and to “Victor”—were they roommates or lovers? He can’t be sure.

Jim goes to the window. His thumbs press into his lower back, making a quiet arc of lightened flesh. He stoops over the desk, rallying himself in the mirror, and begins to dress.

As he puts on his underwear, then his pants—and eventually a shirt, a tie, and a plasticky lanyard—he slowly becomes the man that exists outside the room’s confines, the one who shakes hands and dominates conversations.

The scraping of a belt buckle dragging along the desk is familiar; you know what it sounds like when a man is leaving.

Stories of white-collar workers are often characterized as those of desperation. Such men are the leavers, never the left. But Maxwell’s work is always about desire, the texture of wanting.

If there’s a difference between desperation and desire, it’s hazy, and now the confession comes tumbling out: the cold tile of a bathroom corner, dinner with Victor and his boyfriend escaped, and then Victor’s hands groping where they shouldn’t.

How do you grieve the loss of something you weren’t allowed in the first place? Jim ends cradled in his shadow’s arms, tape-player in hand, singing a tune that does what pop songs do best: want ravenously, unabashedly, on a loop outside time or place.

Catherine Damman

Richard Maxwell’s Showcase ran December 10 and 11 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.