Left Out Festival
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
April 18, 2009
IN HEAT (reviewed by Jack Hanley)
Lisa Haas's hilarious solo play In Heat, performed by Sally Sockwell, offers a fresh and fascinating take on the political and sexual vicissitudes of today's lesbian culture. What is today's lesbian culture? Well according to the character Doris Anderson it's an endangered one, and she may be one of the last ones living it. At first blush Doris is all manners with a folksy southern charm. But don't be fooled by the horned-rimmed glasses, the hair in an updo (like you know who) and the outfit proudly bought at JCPenney. She's no schoolmarm; she's a horned up lesbian-of-a-certain-age who's on a mission...or two. She wants to reestablish a powerful voice for lesbian purists being silenced by the deconstructive theories arising from gender and queer studies programs. Which leads to her second (or perhaps first) mission: to get laid. Those binary bulls of academia are complicating what used to be a simple question: "Your place or mine?" Watch your politically correct toes. Doris knows right where to step.
For several years Doris has been running her support group SILK (Self-Identified Lesbian Community Center) from the backroom of a cat shelter on Avenue C. Now she's found a new outlet for her support center, and within minutes we discover we are the studio audience for the premiere of her live cable access show. The show begins with a sort of State of the Lesbian Diaspora lecture. Using a chart, and trying her best to sound politely clinical, she names and describes the relatively new and academically fortified sexual/gender identities (who are, in her mind, absorbing the good old-fashioned lesbians). There's the gender queers, the bois, the transmen, the bio guys, to name a few. For Doris it's a few too many. She sees more and more women identifying with masculine traits, strapping their breasts down, and eschewing the lesbian sisterhood.
So (to speak in the most politically correct terms), is Haas being insensitive to the non-gender-normative persons? I don't think so considering the mercurial character of Doris and the tenor of the play. By Haas's clever composition and Sockwell's thoughtful inflections, what often comes through—subtly and effectively—is an awareness of changing ideas that are resisted in the play to stimulate illuminating debate. Director Jocelyn Sawyer must also be commended for successfully guiding the proceedings through a political mine field while allowing Sockwell to manifest an authentic persona, whose convictions, right or wrong, are plausible.
And the play is certainly not all about bashing gender studies. One highlight of the play is Doris's wonderfully bizarre and yet intriguingly simple explanation of the evolution of the lesbian. And Doris is quick to point out the pitfalls of her lesbian sisters. She titles one section of her program "New Age No No's". Apparently Doris doesn't think the Moon Goddess (or the accompanying jewelry) is helping much in her lesbian revival movement.
But the movement may all be in her head. During the call-in section of the show she waits uncomfortably beside a silent phone, almost pleading for those stalwart lesbians to make their voices heard. And when it does ring it's usually a bisexual. Doris is quick to hang up on them. She explains that her good angels tell her that bisexuals deserve a support group, but her bad angels tell her, "Who cares?"
In Heat provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance. At times when I was laughing I simultaneously wanted to argue my convictions. Or question them. Or discuss them ad nauseam on the subway ride home (or better yet, with the fictional Doris in the backroom of that cat shelter.) Haas has written a fine and daring piece of theatre. And Sally Sockwell is a comedic genius. She discovers the heart of her character, and from there delivers the humor, thus avoiding diminution in simple self-parody. It's a bewitching performance I will not soon forget.
ROUGHHOUSE (reviewed by Jack Hanley)
As he watches himself being punched and thrown around in a silent video of a violent sexual encounter in a rest room, Topher Cusumano puts his hand down his loose-fitting pants and begins to masturbate. Though the rest room encounter is fictional the gritty realism of the video is potent. Totally captivated by what he sees he lets out quiet moans of pleasure. It was unsettling, it was raw, and yes, to be honest, it was arousing, and consequently my own arousal became the unsettling thing. And I was thrilled, thrilled to be seeing provocative performance art by a gay man. To be honest, it's been awhile.
For most of this decade, truly great, grab-you-by-your-eyeballs performance art that unsettles every comfortable notion of one's selfhood has been the domain of female artists, primarily in the burlesque scene, from the incomparable Julie Atlas Muz to the Pontani Sisters to the recent celebrated performances of Darlinda Just Darlinda. But important gay male performance art has been rather thin of late. Of course there have been some great character portraits of gay men, performed and written by gay men, but now is not the time to debate the definition of performance art. Back to Cusumano.
His piece Roughhouse is an insightful exploration of violence as a sexually erotic trait of masculinity. And one particularly unsettling question emerges: When men have sex with each other is there always violence to some degree? It's a dangerous question because it assumes an almost nihilistic view of sexual relations between men. Even if it's just some roughhousing during sex how long before you see your lover as your combatant? Cusumano is overwrought with these questions, and his spoken word rises at times to high poetic lyricism conflating Christian imagery of suffering and self-loathing sexuality. But it never rises too high to cloy. It falls quickly at times from those lofty heights and becomes a metaphorical form of self-mutilation.
At times, in a desperate state of confusion, he wildly confronts us, demanding us to tell him why, why should he take the beating, why does he allow himself to be beaten? And in these moments we are made the perpetrators of the violence, we dominate him with our silence. We can think anything we want of him. We can think terrible things about him. And in those moments it was obvious to me that Cusumano is a compelling and original artist. He presents difficult, controversial concepts that disturb our world view—performance art at its best.
Dan Kontz, the video director and editor, deserves high praise for his quality production of the captivating video segments, as does Briana Choynowski for her still photography. Topher Cusumano is a passionate young artist whose work I look forward to following.
AN EVENING WITH BEN LERMAN AND HIS UKULELE (reviewed by David Johnston)
Ben Lerman covers familiar ground in his one-man show currently running at the LeftOut Festival. In Cheryl King's cozy performance space in the West Thirties, he runs through Britney Spears, American Idol, food and body image issues, early sexual experimentation with women, and online sex. While's there's little that's new in the material, the funny, musically gifted Lerman is such enjoyable company the time flies. He's like a sought-after party guest—witty, generous, entertaining, and he never wears out his welcome.
An Evening with Ben Lerman and his Ukulele is the no-frills title for this performance of standup comedy, music, and cheerful vulgarity. Clad in street drag—a hoodie, t-shirt and jeans—Lerman is no gay performance artist/firebrand. There's no outlandish transgenderism, no lacerating political content. But the thirty-something Lerman is an ingratiating and gifted performer. With his ukulele, he relaxes into his hour-long set of parody and novelty numbers, keeping up a steady stream of sly, self-deprecating patter, in between songs like "I Love You But I Hate It When You Touch Me." One song deals with his relationship with his Orthodox Jewish family in Indiana, and their equating of food with love. There's an aching love song (on video) to Anderson Cooper, sung to the tune of Elvis Costello's "Alison," where the narrator describes masturbating to the CNN anchor's coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. Another—"Pigfucker35"—deals with the romantic entanglements of an online sex partner, and all its attendant barnyard imagery. Lerman is such an easy-going, genial presence that one doesn't realize until later that he's a real talent as a musician and lyricist. There's an ease to his touch that belies the difficulty of holding an audience for an hour. He's not interested in preaching, educating, or bringing a tear to your eye—he just wants to have fun.
While some of the song parodies feel slightly worn—an Ace of Base send-up trots out familiar clichés on gay men's relationships to vaginas—others have a longing or even absurd quality to them, like "Pussy Pantry" where the narrator sings of his desire for female genitalia, so he could decorate it for the holidays. And it's very hard to not laugh at a Britney Spears parody with the title "I'm Not a Cub, Not Yet a Bear." In between, Lerman works several funny bits, including one where he purposely draws the audience's attention to his own ham-fisted segues. ("Which reminds me of a song I wrote!" Chord!) He even patiently coaches the audience in the time-honored practice of demanding an encore.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if Lerman dug a little deeper into his own experiences, or worked material with a little more zing than the tired landscape of pop culture. But I feel slightly churlish even writing that. After all, if any performer can make a roomful of strangers sing along to the chorus of "Smell Your Dick"—honestly – what more do you want?
OTHERNATURAL (reviewed by Jack Hanley)
When Laramie Dean was a young boy he flew, only once, and landed on the highest branch of a tall tree. In that moment of magical realism he tells us he had a powerful epiphany: he was a monster. Like the vampire, or the werewolf, or the witch, at his core was an innate sense of "otherness." It is his ideation of these monsters that gives him the strength to overcome the difficulties of growing up gay. It's a strong conceit for a coming-out, coming-of-age story, and Dean's many pop cultural references (Anne Rice holds court often) are funny and charming. But unfortunately Dean's Othernatural lacks theatricality, so much so that I never found myself connecting to the stories of his burgeoning sexuality.
In odd ways he tries to render a dramatic presence. He squints, clenches his fists, and often delivers his lines in a strangulated tone. He seems to be struggling to create conflict from what is usually no more than self pity. Yes, his adolescent years were lovelorn—he falls in love with a straight boy, and has many unfulfilling sexual encounters with other boys. But these are ordinary stories of youth for most gay men. For Dean, they're evidence of his extraordinarily conflicted self. I didn't buy it. And his overwrought, over-embellished prose only hinders his efforts.
There are some memorable stories. When he was in eighth grade he was giving oral sex to his best friend. Something they had done frequently, but without orgasm. This time his friend asks him if he's going to swallow. The question sends Dean reeling, flooding his head with questions of what it would mean to swallow. Would it be love? Does he love his friend? Who would he become if he swallows? It's a well-crafted moment that allows profound insight into the awaking consciousness of sexuality. And Dean is entirely theatrical in his telling. More moments like that, and perhaps Othernatural would be more natural for the stage.