Friday, November 23, 2007

The Genius Factor

Soon after the Broadway premiere of Sunday in the Park with George, a friend of mine complained that he had perceived a slowing down in Stephen Sondheim's creative output. "That man is such a genius that I think we're all entitled to another masterpiece," he griped (without the slightest understanding of the artistic process). Since June is the month when the MacArthur Foundation traditionally issues its "genius awards," it's interesting to note what genius is and how it plays a role in the arts.

Webster's Big Dick (which defines genius as "a great natural ability, strong disposition or inclination for a particular activity") describes a genius as both "a person with a very high intelligence quotient," and "a person having great and original creative ability in some art, science, etc." What the definition fails to state clearly enough, however, is the uniqueness of a genius and the singular impact of his work. In the sciences, a genius such as Albert Einstein or Alan Turing may possess such rare mathematical and/or logistic talents that his brain can stretch the boundaries of human knowledge to the point where new discoveries are made. In the arts, the presence of genius is often reflected in the singularity of a person's abilities to use his craft as a part of the artistic process. A true genius's creativity is not based on quantity so much as it is on quality.

Nevertheless, it helps if both factors go hand-in-hand.


Several years ago, when Bill Irwin became a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation award, people unfamiliar with his work were a bit surprised to see so much recognition going to a self-proclaimed "performance artist and clown." Yet Irwin (who is a veteran of San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus) is a great clown who has developed a geeky and peculiarly appealing body language all his own. Currently starring on Broadway in Largely New York, this man has sent the press scrambling for superlatives as they try to compare him to Chaplin and other legendary talents who, as history has shown us, were legends unto themselves.

Largely New York offers audiences a humorously kinetic essay whose chief ingredients are music, movement, mime and video. It's a piece whose most successful sight gags involve the comic use of stage curtains, sleight of hand, break dancers, and a wacko college professor who likes to do pratfalls into the orchestra pit. Irwin's show doesn't have a spoken word in it. Yet there is more imagination here than you could find in most of the theatres on Broadway.

All of the factors which contribute to Largely New York's giddying success serve to entertain an audience with an impressively high pleasure quotient. Special praise goes to break dancers Leon Chesney and Steve Clemente as The Poppers, Margaret Eginton as a dance soloist and Jeff Gordon as the diving Dean. But at the center of it all is actor-choreographer-director Bill Irwin in the role of a post-modern hoofer who is trying to make sense out of modern life while playing with a hand-held remote control gadget which can make any mechanical device in the St. James Theatre run amok.

To witness Mr. Irwin working a stage in the persona of a timeless nerd whose body is made of rubber is a theatrical joy. You really need to experience this phenomenon for yourself. Why? Because Largely New York is definitely not the kind of show you should just read about.


We often appreciate someone's genius most intensely when it has been taken from us. Last year, when Charles Ludlam succumbed to AIDS, many wondered if the Ridiculous Theatrical Company would be able to withstand its founder's demise. In the tradition of "the show must go on," Ludlam's partner and lover, Everett Quinton, took over the leadership of the company. In recent months, Quinton has been performing a one-man show entitled A Tale of Two Cities. However, despite a rave review from The New York Times, I found his performance as a neurotic drag queen (who finds an infant on his doorstep and attempts to calm the child by acting out all of Charles Dickens' novel) insufferably boring.

One of the tackier joys of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company has always been its tendency to wallow in wretched excess. That excess was made wonderfully lurid by Ludlam's perverse genius and the rare artistic "flounce" which imbued his performances. Ludlam knew what the joke was, the audience knew what the joke was, Ludlam knew that the audience knew what the joke was, and the audience knew that Ludlam knew that the audience knew what the joke was.

Unfortunately, Everett Quinton (who, for many years was a great second banana to Ludlam's shenanigans) does not possess that same kind of charisma. And, if ever one needed proof that Everett Quinton is not Charles Ludlam, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's production of A Tale of Two Cities offers it with cruel honesty. Where one could admire Charles Ludlam's art and be in awe of his outrageousness, one always knew that Ludlam was a superb craftsman who could get himself out of any dramatic hole while breezing through a performance. When Quinton embarks on a 90-minute solo, one has the sense of watching a not-very-good actor who is working extremely hard (and sweating quite vigorously) while floundering onstage.

The sad lesson to be learned from this experience is that the genius factor is not easily transferred from one artist to another. And, despite the noblest of intentions, a man's attempt to pick up the torch -- and continue a noble theatrical tradition from the place in history where his dead lover left off -- has no guarantee of artistic success. The genius factor is precisely what sets certain intensely gifted people apart from the rest of the population. And, whether we like it or not, genius is not the kind of quality which can be passed on to those who hope to fill an aching artistic vacancy.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 29, 1989.

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