SANTA MONICA — High-energy whirlwind, performance artist Dan Kwong flails away at the numerous clear balloons containing fluorescent Ping-Pong balls suspended overhead. Each one he pops sends its colorful messengers of death careening into the darkness--a striking allegory of the relentless march of AIDS-infected T-cells, and one that illustrates the stylistic flair and keen intelligence in "The Dodo Vaccine," Kwong's new solo piece at Highways.
This latest installment of Kwong's continuing meditations on the Asian American experience in the time of AIDS, homophobia and cultural fragmentation plays itself out on an elaborate stage layered with scrims, slide projections and abstract sculpture, but the focus remains engagingly personal.
Using the charged scenario of an AIDS test as a launching pad, Kwong explores the inherent humiliation in having to admit his sexual indiscretions, a loss of face amplified by a culture steeped in denial. AIDS is not an Asian problem, the popular wisdom goes, and to concede otherwise is to undermine hard-won status as an ideal, low-maintenance minority.
The sad inability to act on the basis of what we know to be true--hardly the exclusive province of Asians--is one of Kwong's prominent themes. Poignantly, he recalls how his family concealed a cancer diagnosis from his dying grandfather and recalls his first taste of AIDS discrimination in the emotional withdrawal from his own girlfriend when he told her he'd been tested.
During his agonizing wait for the test results, Kwong takes us on a journey of insightful, sometimes painful self-scrutiny. In one childhood recollection, he reduces his own homophobia to a devastating syllogism--to be a sensitive sissy is to feel, to feel is to lose, to lose is not to exist.
At his best, Kwong deploys his multimedia arsenal with startling success, using sound, visual composition and lighting to drive his points home with more force than unaccompanied narrative could achieve. Sometimes the effects are ingeniously simple--inflating an oversized balloon behind projected statistics on the spread of AIDS infection, then holding it over his head and slowly letting the air out as he delivers a monologue about not getting involved evokes a haunting sense of dissociated free fall.
Cool irony is both Kwong's strong suit and his prison--it's the source of many wry insights, but it often precludes emotional involvement. He turns this limitation into a strength in a hilarious depiction of unsafe, mouthwatering, loin-quivering sexual compulsion punctuated with the terrified shrieks of rational caution, and again in his attempt to expand his safe sex repertoire through phone sex with an old girlfriend that keeps getting interrupted by call waiting.
Less successful is an overly clever monologue on homophobia as he covers himself with sludge--the visual shock is undermined by obvious, stilted rhymes. With so many artistic territories already conquered, raw, unfiltered emotion would be a promising next step for this talented performer.
* "The Dodo Vaccine," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Today-Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $12. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.