The Mercury Menifesto
nytheatre.com review by Emily Otto
June 15, 2007
Here in New York, we've all seen our share of kooky performers in the subway and on the street. While we've come to expect all manner of singing, dancing, drumming, and sermonizing, some of the most captivating public performances consist of artists doing, well, nothing at all. John Del Signore's The Mercury Menifesto illuminates the world of stationary artists, also commonly known as living statues. Framed as a workshop seminar for wannabe Mercury Men, the production combines video footage and puppetry with dramatic re-enactments and improvisation to present a glimpse of life "inside the unitard." With tongue planted firmly in silver cheek, The Mercury Menifesto visually entertains while offering sharp, acidic commentary on the collision of art, commerce, and law enforcement in New York City.
Clad and painted entirely in silver, Del Signore spent years performing as a Mercury Man in New York's subways. Standing motionless for hours at a time, he would only move to thank passersby who dropped money in his bucket. His unusual act attracted crowds of people, a fair amount of cash, and, inevitably, New York's Finest working hard to shut down his performance. The Mercury Menifesto uses the motivational seminar format to present sardonic sketches and scenarios examining the rewards and pitfalls of a career as a renegade street artist.
Throughout the performance, Del Signore and his "seminar helper guy" co-star, Jeff Seal, coax the audience into manufactured excitement with flashing lights, applause cues, and silver coins tossed to participants who display sufficient enthusiasm. While presenting the philosophical components of being a successful stationary artist, they recount the tale of Del Signore's journey into the genre.
The Mercury Men were born when Del Signore was fired from playing a wandering, candy-cane toting Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue shortly after an unfortunate drunken encounter with Rudy Giuliani. Inspired by a bum in the subway, Del Signore decided he could embark on a new career as a self-made man. The production recreates his early experiences in subway performance with the help of a half-dozen puppets, cleverly designed by Mary Kate Rix to represent the diversity of New York's subway riders. Del Signore repeatedly asserts his status as the original Mercury Man, despite the contrary claims of the nefarious Victor Wilde, Del Signore's former performing partner, who appears on video, "live via satellite from L.A.," in an attempt to destroy Del Signore's credibility. It soon becomes apparent that the men in unitards are less than unified in their desire to "stand for change."
Del Signore's writing is clever and incisive, and his turns of phrase are frequently laugh-out-loud funny (I particularly enjoyed the idea of his Santa "proffering cane" to Giuliani). The physical performances are hilariously precise. Seal, in particular, embodies a mélange of bumbling characters with great aplomb. Occasionally, the actors stumble with some uninspired line readings, but oddly, the performance comes to life most vividly when things go a little awry. Both Seal, who is a trained clown, and Del Signore are adept improvisers, and when they are caught off-guard by an audience response or a technical glitch, they ride the wave of uncertainty with energy and skill.
The performance begins and ends with a droll voiceover offering a meta-narrative commentary on the play, describing it as a "fatuous crowd-pleaser." While the device is amusing, and certainly appropriate for the stated intentions of the Pretentious Festival, it feels somewhat extraneous to the show itself. The self-mockery is fun, but even without it, The Mercury Manifesto presents barbed, witty insights about the struggle to make a living as an artist in our fair city.