Last summer, upon emerging from Taylor Mac’s five-hour theatrical extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge at HERE in New York, I was charged with more than just the thrill of seeing a great show. The experience demanded I forge ahead, for the rest of my days, in a way that honored the why of my reaction. Basking in the aura of aesthetic perfection, transcendent command of technique, or crystal-clarity of vision is a pleasure worth paying for, to be sure, but one that often asks only to be received and appreciated—maybe also for you to insist that everyone you know buy a ticket, ASAP. These performances never ask—or care—whether you keep your promises, treat people with respect, or separate your recyclables. Revenge did, though—outright—and “Origins,” a music/theater/video/campfire/pizza party I attended Sunday, strongly concurred.
This third annual show at Random House—literally a house, in Humboldt Park—began in the attic. An audience of about 20 gathered on the floor, on small mats. We were faced on both sides by eight canvas shades which rose, one by one, for brief pieces. Kate Sheehy, one of the event’s organizing forces (a trio that goes by Schjweet Troika), sang a little song praising the virtues of failure called “no brakes” while trying to balance on a child’s bicycle. (Later I found out Sheehy rides unicycles, and those tall bikes you’ll start seeing around again soon.) Cобака (Dog for A.M.), a scene for three written by Sharon Lanza, followed with a smart spoof on meta-theatrical self-consciousness played by two girls in a tent, at twilight at a summer camp, interrupted periodically by a stern, mirthless counselor demanding “lights out!” There was a sweetly-odd dance solo in a cramped corner (by becca hopson), a high-camp ode to chewing gum jingles and ’80s aerobics (Donnell Williams and Jyl Fehrenkamp’s Stuck on You), and a frank short story about a first trip on hallucinogenic mushrooms read by Sara Kerastas. Meredith Miller sang “Mack the Knife” with a thousand-yard stare during blood and bile/brecht and weill, unfolding swatches of burlap stained with silhouettes in blood—it was like a graphic-novella-as-crime-scene, the worms and beetles that scurry out if you peek at the mud under Sinatra’s rendition. Closing the attic show, Random House resident Jessica Hudson and Kyle Casey performed “the space between,” a song they co-wrote, separated by a miniature cityscape above which tiny hot air balloons drifted slowly toward one another, then up to the peak of the attic roof. “Do you know of a place…where I’ll be, and you’ll be/in the space between longing and relief?” they asked each other. “Come with me,” they sang. “I need you to see what I see.” The performers were illuminated by the audience: Flashlights distributed beforehand were passed around so those with the best angles could keep them lit.
Back on the second floor, we watched the second act, a mini film festival. The clinical control of Logan Kibens’s Prep Room (2009)—shot in a mortuary—paired nicely with Catie Olson and EC Brown’s hilariously-odd Lanolin Dreams (2010), which suggested that zooming closely in on a sheep’s coat would reveal strands of hair singing sambas and bossa novas in Portuguese. Cabela’s, another recent short, by Marilyn Volkman, asked you to draw your own conclusions from footage of kids firing toy rifles and a talking trophy head, probably shot at one of the hunting retailer’s zany destination stores (two of which are nearby, in Hammond, Indiana, and Hoffman Estates). Casey Smallwood’s Bleeding into the Alter drills into the artist’s recurring interest in self-imposed narratives of ideality via improvised interviews with actors playing romance novelists, an apt counterpoint to LETS DO THIS, (2010), Hudson, Sheehy and Danielle Paz’s Plan B of a film. While cutting what seems to have been intended as a Vodka Movie -like goof-off, they found an alternate story: Candid moments of the friends directing one another and negotiating the cooperation necessary to their collaborative venture. I can’t say whether it’s better than the movie they planned to make, but it’s insightful anyhow. Especially satisfying was imagining Plan A left behind on the shoulder of their creative fast lane, its thumb stuck out in vain as it watched this poem of what were supposed to be cast-offs roar into the sunset, pedal to the metal.
On the way downstairs to the house’s yard—for a set by band The Counterpane, pizza, beer and a fire—I walked through Sam Bryer’s installation, Groundwork. Soft-sculpture stalagtite-tentacles hung from the ceiling, teasing glimpses of a small stool. Once seated, I noticed that the forms could also be roots of an imagined tree which, if it existed, would have branches growing straight through the projector screen I’d just been watching, and the attic where I’d sat cross-legged with my flashlight. Two pouches hung from the wall on my left: One was filled with a bunch of black Sharpies, the other with hand-formed pellets containing wildflower seeds. As instructed, I wrote a few words on one, a wish for what I’d like to germinate for the year ahead, and dropped it into a sea sponge -looking bag. After sundown, Bryer emptied the bag into a bowl of water. The remaining audience members and I knelt around the bowl and plunged our hands into the dish, breaking down the pellets until we had a soupy mush, which we then planted in a plot in a corner of the house’s garden. “Mix everyone’s dreams together,” instructed Bryer.
Via email, Hudson writes that she’s “resistant to return to her ‘normal’ life” after three weekend performances of “Origins.” I was surprised to hear her art/life relationship seems like a dichotomy—“Origins” felt to me, as The Lily’s Revenge did, like an invitation to a more caring and creative approach to all choices, and I left Random House assuming Schjweet Troika and friends had made some discovery allowing them to do just that, always, without lapse, interruption or hesitation. Hudson—who is, full disclosure, like a few others involved, a good friend—is of course as vulnerable as any of us to “real” life’s petty annoyances and profound pain. Will the cooperative spirit these shows share, I wondered, always feel apart from daily experience? And, if so, is that telling evidence of a collective jump off our rails (and rockers)? I’m looking at the week ahead, another seven days either at my desk or in a theater. I expect to see some interesting, challenging, intriguing, beautiful and intelligent things. I’ll likely also witness a few moments that fall short of their intent and/or haven’t quite discovered one. Nothing will ask me to get my hands dirty, though, and in the afterglow of an experience like “Origins,” that feels like a problem.