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Absurd 'Notes' On Performance Art

January 24, 1986|ROBERT KOEHLER

A while ago, a group of us were leaving an experimental theater show when someone grumbled, "These performance artists!They can never finish anything!" It was a legitimate complaint, especially since the condemned performer's work intended a beginning, middle and end.

Sometimes that's not the intention--then it's the viewer's problem. As if listening to all these stirrings and rumblings, performer Jan Munroe has designed a work meant to put all this performance art stuff in some perspective. It's titled, with misleading pedantry, "Notes: On Performance."

At the Wallenboyd, "Notes" seems to be a big thumbing of the nose at the Art Week and High Performance magazine cult of seriousness that has crept over the mixed-media form like so much fungus. It begins with light titters of comedy and accelerates toward outrageous displays of dreamlike absurdity that strike us as nothing less than a frightened performer's frenzied thoughts made flesh.

What goes on before the performance begins? "Notes" peers in on that forbidden world and shows us that these artists diddle around a lot (some would say they do that for a living), drink gallons of coffee, put up with director's groans and even worry where their next paycheck is coming from.

Somehow, arising from such vulgar nuisances, invention emerges. From time to time, we wait for the inventions to light up this show; but since it's commenting on the process, watching the show's own inner process--lulls and explosions both--doesn't bother us.

"Notes"makes us aware of what fragile ground performance art stands on as it strives to mature.

At the same time, the show is screaming the cause of the theater as a playpen. It gives you that nervous feeling, especially if you sit close enough, of watching kids have too much fun: Someone might get hurt. Munroe's performing cohorts, Tony Abatemarco, Susan Falcon and director David Schweizer all ride the razor blade of looniness with varying results.

Abatemarco is the looniest, the biggest risk-taker, a man who brings out our nerves. And at times he is astonishingly mad, replete with comic gifts most performance artists can't touch.

By contrast, Schweizer's silent neurotic and Falcon seem to be along for the ride, without putting out much horsepower of their own. Munroe, as always, creates a performance of broad range, dry and subdued one moment, epochal and overpowering the next.

Costumer Christina Banks has some outrageous surprises of her own, and Stephen Bennett's white set and variegated lights keep the show's visual stream-of-consciousness alive.

Performances at 301 Boyd St., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 8 (629-2205).


Julie Jensen's play "Old Wives Tale," at the Boyd Street Theatre, is as grim and remote as the Nevada landscape that surrounds its characters. Odd, for a work that seeks to impress upon us the importance of human beings making connections with each other.

Julia Whitcombe's Margerie gets Karlene Bradley's stuttering La Priel into such a state about the family of strangers across the road that she nearly expects them to lay siege to her house. As it is, Lisa Nichols as Letha and Sarah Lilly as Letha's quietly serious mother pop up on La Priel's doorstep when she least expects it.

Letha's adolescent penchant for the macabre and tall tales impress us, apparently, long before La Priel catches on. We can't empathize with the paranoia of someone this slow to pick up the scent. Jensen's is a game of moods that hardly buttresses the inner message of the durability of goodness.

What does hold us is Bradley, who seems to have stepped out of a Grant Wood painting. We can almost hear the silent, fearful dialogues her La Priel is having alone in the kitchen. K. A. Bartlett's direction keeps the deliberate pace of a Strindberg play. It is, in other words, too pretentious for its own good.

A completely different and throughly forgettable piece, Byrd Ehlmann's "The English Public House," is tacked on as second half filler. Phyllis (Nicole Goedhart), an American teacher shepherding exchange students in England, visits old friend Rose (Deborah Howes) to catch up on old times and find out what's the matter with Sally (Johanna Specktor). For Rose, who likes hosting exchange students, Sally's "a typical Yank" who refuses to eat. The point--foreignness is in the eye of the beholder--is old stuff played out with no eye for a fresh view.

The competent cast, directed by Diane Bailey and C. Hilary Moshereece is nevertheless devoid of precise comic energy.

Performances at 305 Boyd St., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 15 (680-4978).


Bill Oxendine-Santana's shaggy Hollywood tale, "Accommodating Nona," at the 5th Estate Theatre, appears to dote on the tacky lives of empty TV stars even as it seeks to make observations about them. Eventually, the play becomes an unintended study in strained plotting, all of it highlighted by painfully wooden performances.

One of them is not Beecey Carlson's as Nona, who takes in a Texas drifter (David Stebbins) out of the kindness of her heart. He turns to street hustling without telling her, and his glitzy world begins invading her quaint pad like a battering ram. Lawrence Braude's direction is so completely uninvolving, and Oxendine-Santana's script so strained as Nona accommodates strangers far beyond the realm of common sense, that even Carlson's ingratiating Shirley Booth-like manner can't hold us.

Performances at 1707 N. Kenmore, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Runs indefinitely (392-4471).

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