Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 5, 2010
La MaMa is presenting what's billed as the farewell performance of John Kelly in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte; this is Kelly's signature piece, one that he has done intermittently over the past 25 years.
And if you're in search of what has made Kelly a formidable and important performance artist of the late 20th century, you will not be disappointed by this show. Kelly's is a magnetic stage presence, and his talent as dancer, creator, choreographer, and actor is extraordinary.
Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, is a physical theatre piece interpreting the life and career of artist Egon Schiele. Title cards at the beginning of the almost entirely wordless show provide a capsule summary of what we are about to see: Schiele becomes an artist, becomes involved with a model named Wally, is convicted as a pornographer, becomes famous after his release from jail, marries a woman named Edith, and then dies at the tragically young age of 28 during the influenza outbreak following World War I.
With dancers Eric Jackson Bradley and Luke Murphy as alter egos/supernumeraries and Tymberly Canale and MacKenzie Meehan as the women in Schiele's life (Wally and Edith, respectively), Kelly performs scenes depicting the above events. At their best, which is most of the time, they are fascinatingly watchable, making the art of creation palpably visceral and kinetic, which might seem counter-intuitive. The high point for me was a segment where Kelly as Schiele "paints" as if by magic, with the outlines and then the colors appearing on a giant canvas, seemingly out of nowhere—a marvelous metaphor for the unknowable process of making art. Also impressive are scenes on film, especially one near the end depicting Schiele while ill with influenza. And the vignette about the meeting between Wally and Schiele, which gives the piece its quirky title, is a comical, though melancholy, delight, evoking Chaplin.
What I expected to find in the piece, but didn't, was deeper insight into why Schiele painted the way he did. Kelly shows us what German expressionism looks like and even feels like, but he doesn't contextualize it in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte; in fact, a sequence at the beginning almost seems to suggest that Schiele painted the way he did because that's how he saw the world, which is obviously true on one level but seems to ignore the swirl of events in Germany and elsewhere that made Schiele see in that particular way.
But taken on its own terms, Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte is a piece of beauty and power, and the experience of watching it is memorable and informative. I suspect, too, that the young performers Kelly is working with here are getting a great deal out of collaborating with the master on this final revival of his most famous work.