April 20, 2011
HiLobrow.com has curated a collection of our favorite recent blog posts by comic-book scriptwriter and translator Adam McGovern. This is the third in a series of ten installments.
(Being a random appreciation of not-necessarily-comics-related offerings from the best of the illegitimate theatre)
Willy Nilly; Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., New York City, 8/22/09; www.pipermckenzie.com
Blood on the Cat’s Neck; The Brick Theatre, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, 8/22/09; http://collisionwork.livejournal.com
Everywhere you look this month, Charlie Manson seems to have slipped in to murder the dinner guests at the anniversary party for Hair, for Woodstock, even for freakin’ jeans. No surprise, since he’s been hypnotizing the camera eye for 40 years. Playwright/composer/actor Trav S.D.’s song-and-dance dissertation on the phenomenon, Willy Nilly, will put an eerily detached smile on your face from start to finish.
In tuneful jumpcuts from career convict to cult leader to legend, “Willy Nilson” hits Hollywood, assembles a harem of hippies, does battle with Black Panthers, spellbinds a Beach Boy into letting him cut an album and orchestrates mass murder. That a time-honored one-size success-story template so easily fits aspiring vaudeville troupers and messianic madmen alike says something about the real-life Manson Family’s actually seamless progress from products of American mainstream culture to fixtures of it.
Absolute rulers are usually epic buffoons, and the manic rants, stoned slapstick, prehistoric hipsterism and period-pastiche score make this the most hilarious show about brainwashing and ritual slaughter you may see all month. Laughter is the best therapy and the surest subversion; still, it’s all so funny you can be fooled into thinking that history reprocessed as farce is the production’s only purpose. But when the climactic massacre comes, in a showstopper of B-movie gore and youthsploitation SFX, it’s clear we’re seeing a flash-forward montage of the following four decades of pop culture, in which Manson has proven more admired and influential than any of his flower-power contemporaries. You don’t need Willy’s self-serving closing courtroom speech to agree he’s had a countryfull of accomplices in the ensuing media carnival, but taking any of these people too seriously has been every previous pundit and producer’s big mistake.
In the lead role, Avery Pearson does a great job of both erratically speaking in the tongues of medicine-show jester, charismatic prophet and streetcorner psycho, and portraying an endlessly shifting personality that passionately believes each contradictory thing it’s saying, for the moment it’s being said; the ultimate actor, in no search of a script, because it finds him.
The artisanal hysteria Hope Cartelli’s been honing all decade finds its highest expression yet in her role as Willy’s founding follower, the famously glazed Manson-clan affect allowing her to come closer than ever to the complete liberation of reaction from reference. The kamikaze clowning of Maggie Cino, as another disciple, passes astounding new limits here as well, and if the billboard good looks and radiant self-importance of Adam Swiderski’s ego-addicted pop star (a Dennis Wilson doppelganger from “The Beachnuts”) were not proven to exist in this performance, it would be necessary for neo-pop comic artist Mike Allred to design him.
Trav S.D. specializes in testing what human truths can manage to seep through a canvass almost entirely collaged from caricatures, and thus special honors go to the most omnivorous epicures of chewed scenery — and for sheer bravura bombast the Shatner goes to: Mateo Moreno for his otherworldly, whingeing shtick as a doped-up Queen Elizabeth (don’t ask, just get the last few tickets) and effete filmmaker “Poland Romanski”; and Daryl Lathon for his finely-wrought exaggeration and well-timed outbursts as the murder-blues-crooning jail janitor who’s Willy’s secret father, and an aspiring pitchman turned militant revolutionary (as opposed to the order those things happen in real life).
Director/ringmaster Jeff Lewonczyk once again keeps clockwork looking like chaos; Becky Byers’ exuberant down-with-people choreography stomps nails in theme-park Broadway’s coffin with expert deployment of its own talent-show clichés; and you couldn’t ask for a realer band to make fake pop history than musical accompanists The Four Hoarses.
Trav S.D.’s ability to metabolize mass-culture touchstones is infinite yet discerning; he appears as the Jack Webb-like control voice to narrate (and eventually participate in) the proceedings. It’s a standard G-Man vs. dropout trope of the times, but also raises the unwelcome shade of a pathologically uptight Tom Snyder’s tabloid-TV exhibition interview with an antic, aging Manson 20 years later. So too we’re treated to a grotesque reanimation of Laugh-In’s go-go interludes (a cheekily damning distant-replay of the T&A on which middle-aged hipsters and Manson could agree); and Trav doubles as a Tiny Tim clone infiltrating the clan to make sure they first do the crime and then get locked up for it (somewhere the ghost of Malcolm X is nodding, but not smiling).
Even an anguished allusion to the pseudo-hippie Star Trek parable “Miri” makes it into the square narrator’s tortured dialogue. Perhaps all that’s left is to mount a sequel in which stand-ins for Warhol’s Factory march through Times Square and demand to take over The Ed Sullivan Show. But there just might not be the audience for it. The Warhol kids never killed anyone but themselves (and except for Valerie Solanas, didn’t even try) — and that’s box-office suicide.
I ended up at two different dinner parties that turn to slaughters in the same evening when I headed over from the Nilsons’ on the Lower East Side to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Blood on the Cat’s Neck (a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe vs. The Vampires) in Brooklyn. Written in 1971, the play takes the fading pulse of postwar, bureaucratized, organization-wo/man malaise in, it so happens, metropolitan Germany, as seen through the monitors of “Phoebe Zeitgeist,” an extraterrestrial here to observe human social orders.
Mostly mute and resembling a life-size music-box ballerina, Phoebe (played by an inspiredly animatronic Gyda Arber) gets alternately ignored and projected onto like a pinup Chauncey Gardiner by a superb ensemble cast of soliloquizing mainstreet archetypes (butcher, cop, office-drone, professor, war widow, gigolo, etc.). Fassbinder channels these quiet-desperation monologues with a compassion, and an apparent personal familiarity with the subject-matter, quite uncommon for midcentury lefty moralizing, and director Ian W. Hill choreographs the drain-circling narrative structure and alternating character interplay with the kind of assuredness that gives avant-garde asymmetry and simultaneity a good name.
It’s not spoiling any more than the online synopsis does to say that, at the end, Phoebe has heard enough and goes on a vampiric rampage amongst the party guests that Roman Polanski would be proud of. Was she sent here to measure our weaknesses all along? Is she a judgment engine which has assessed us unworthy? Should we be thankful that the real-life human psyche, unlike hers, can somehow reconcile and sustain all this disappointment and cruelty? Either way, the late-’60s/early-’70s was a time when it seemed surely that a millennium was at hand, and whether that meant deliverance by a bohemian saint or merely being dispatched by an antichrist or alien, it would at least be, y’know, something different.
This post originally appeared at ComicCritique.BLOG, on August 25, 2009.
CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators