Monday, September 21, 2009

Glorifying The Grotesque

Art isn't always pretty. Many artists struggle to take their creativity in new directions, challenge the status quo, flex their artistic muscle and hope to achieve some kind of breakthrough. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't.

Sometimes, turning a common perception upside down and inside out can have surprising results. Witness the artist Midori as she describes her "LoveSeat" installation at Seattle's 2009 Erotic Art Festival and how the public's interaction with her art brought some unexpected delights:

The 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival included several attractions that went out of their way to push the envelope of "tasteful theatre." Some aimed to entertain, others wanted to make the audience squirm with discomfort. Whether one likes or loathes a provocative piece of art, one should always keep in mind that:
  • The artistic is attempting to bring a concept to fruition.
  • Where there's smoke, there's fire -- in other words, an artist's circle of friends will help to build an initial audience for his work.
  • While a controversial piece of art may find a new audience, it's important for a disgruntled viewer to accept that he may not belong to the artist's target audience.
  • Sometimes a piece of art really sucks.
  • When a piece of art truly sucks, it's okay to say so. If you don't like it, maybe someone else will.
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Among the more bizarre attractions at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival was the world premiere of The Unbearable Lightness of Raya starring Miss Trannyshack 2006, Raya Light. "Ripped from the tabloids" would be a polite way of describing this show's plot, which follows a precocious child star who, after her mother coaches her in how to give a casting agent a blow job, gets cast as "Margo From Fargo," rises to stardom and selfishness before going from sold out to selling out. The show's publicity blurb states that:
"At a very young age, Raya Light was destined to be the greatest star that ever was. Well, at least in her mind! See Raya as a precocious 10 year old girl at her very first audition, foaming at the mouth for her first morsel of fame! Marvel at her meteoric rise from Tween Queen to Oscar winner! Fasten your seat belts for a wild ride of coke lines, sex tapes, collagen lips and worst dressed lists ...Hooray for Hollywood indeed! Leave your panties at home!"
Photo by: Jose A. Guzman Colon

Whether engaging in endless sniping with rival actress Kimberly Scott Thompson (Audra Wolfmann) or waddling around the stage in a fat suit in an obvious homage to Kirstie Alley, Raya Light leaves no moan unearned. Proving that big hair, a big mouth, and big pumps can only get a girl so far, the production also features Trixxie Carr as Mama Light and news commentator Bobbie Beaver and Steven Satyricon in a variety of small roles.

Directed and choreographed by Todd Alan Pickering, The Unbearable Lightness of Raya redefines the concept of a"vanity production." For those who thrive on tabloid gossip, there are lots of cheap laughs. I suspect, however, that a drunker audience would have helped matters immensely.

Kudos to Edie Modular for wig designs that, if properly mounted, could qualify as important pieces of municipal art. If you've never had a chance to see Raya Light in action, you might enjoy this "candid" visit with her:

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Another work receiving its world premiere at this year's Fringe Festival was the Dark Porch Theatre's production of Cockroach. Written by Martin Schwartz, directed and choreographed by Margery Fairchild, the publicity blurb for Cockroach claimed that:
"The piece, inspired by Noh, Butoh, and contemporary European dance theatre, stars Nathan Tucker as a nearly-deranged homeless man ritualistically returning to the scene of trauma, as goaded by Alison Sacha Ross and a post-human, insect-like three-man ensemble of dancers in an eerily expressive contemporary sound environment realized by Derek Phillips.
What is unique in Cockroach is the combination of its European-style approach to conceptual theatre with text-based acting and tightly wrought, well-rehearsed contemporary dance,” says Fairchild. “That tension between the art forms was extremely important for Marty and me throughout the process of conceptualizing and realizing this piece.” Schwartz adds, “And beyond uncovering the tension between the media, we’ve really aimed to use sound and lighting to help create a complete environment for the audience to experience Nathan’s incredible characterization of a ‘schizophrenic street person.’ Schizophrenia runs in my family, and I’ve come to believe that schizophrenics have something vitally important to show us about how we feel.”
Nathan Tucker (Photo by: Eric Gillet)

Unfortunately, Cockroach reminded me of a style of "agony workshop theater" in which the actors try to communicate the agony they are feeling while the audience experiences its own personal agony as it waits for the piece to end. To his credit, Nathan Tucker gave an extremely powerful portrayal of a mentally deranged homeless man. His dramatic strength would be well suited to work as a Cirque du Soleil clown or being cast as Fagin. To suggest that Martin Schwartz's overblown script and Margery Fairchild's stylized movements for the three "post-human dancers" were embarrassingly pretentious couldn't begin to do justice to their work.

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According to the publicity blurb for the world premiere of Tater Stew, the show is:
"... a dark comedy following the adventures of Stewart, a young schoolboy attempting to overcome the abuses of his maniacal schoolmaster. Aiding Stewart in his quest are Seamus (a foul-smelling homeless man), and Schmaing (a repulsive lunch lady). Tater Stew is certain to keep audiences riveted as they witness a high energy display of frayed nerves, strained interactions, and raw, uncompromising language. Tater Stew is signed, sealed, and delivered by Slop Hog Productions of Missoula, Montana."
Andrew John Garfield as Stewart (Photo by: Monte Jenkins)

There is, indeed, much that is riveting about watching Tater Stew, whether it be anticipating Stewart's next humiliation or watching a demented, angry lunch lady (Ciara Griffin) lift her skirt so she can urinate into a soup ladle and then spit into the contents of her stew pot. If it's sadomasochism that whets your palate, there's always the sight of Stewart (Andrew John Garfield) being beaten with a 12-inch ruler by his hysterical schoolmaster (Monte Jenkins). Or perhaps you'd care to watch the homeless Seamus (John Budge) eat some Dinty Moore's beef stew straight from the can, grabbing chunks of meat and potatoes in his filthy fingers before cramming them into his mouth.

Stewart (Andrew John Garfield) and Seamus (John Budge)

Whatever your perversion of choice, Tater Stew has a bizarre fascination that keeps audiences in its sordid grip. A gifted clown willing to suffer a lot of physical abuse onstage, Andrew John Garfield heads the cast of four. This is theater of the lewd, crude, and rude (often staged to hilarious effect by Ciara Griffin) that has the audience rooting for Stewart to get up the courage to take matters into his own hands. If you enjoyed Swimming With Sharks, you're guaranteed to love Tater Stew. Here's the trailer:

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