Deadly Downtown Shows: John Kelly and Young Jean Lee

By Rachel Straus

Downtown New York nightlife is as good a destination for surveying America’s fixation with youth culture as there is. But last week, two established performance artists presented works created for downtown venues that focused on a most anti-youthful subject: Death. Young Jean Lee wrote and performed “We’re Gonna Die” at Joe’s Pub. John Kelly brought back to P.S. 122 his “Escape Artist,” which won him the organization’s 2010 Ethyl Eichelberger Award.

The two shows couldn’t have been more different. While Kelly sang alone on stage about his trauma, pain, and brush with death (alongside compelling visuals), Lee and four talented rock musicians sang about mortal issues in which they were not the direct focus. Guess whose show was more interesting?

It wasn’t Kelly’s. But to be fair, Kelly’s navel gazing wasn’t the problem. The former Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company dancer sang in a style, recalling a Stephen Sondheim musical circa 1984. Worse yet, Kelly sang off key; perhaps because almost all his vocalizations occurred on the horizontal.

In “Escape Artist,” Kelly lay on an operating-size table, telling the tale of taking a trapeze lesson, falling from a flip, and spending weeks in St. Vincent’s Hospital flat on his back—without pain medication. During this relived torture, Kelly drew occasional fortitude from channelling the life of Caravaggio, who escaped pain through art making, but also died young because of it.

Because this show’s strength rested with projections of Caravaggio’s paintings (in which beauty and violence collide) and with Kelly’s quirky video design (created with Jeff Morey), it’s best to describe the visuals. Behind Kelly, three video screens’ content created a triptych-type feast for the eyes. The projections included Caravaggio’s paintings (i.e. “Judith Beheading Holofernes”), moving montages (such as a filmed visit through a MRI machine), and live video recording (of Kelly’s face as recorded by a camera perched above the operating table). The combined technological effect produced a time traveling sensation. It called to mind Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” in which melting clocks make reference to the psyche’s indifference to chronological events.

In “We’re Gonna Die,” Young Jean Lee’s chronologically unfolding family tale moved forward with a structural elegance that felt spontaneous. Alternating between speaking to the audience and singing with the band Future Wife, Lee became a modern-day bard. Her rich, melodic voice exponentially increased as her confessional-style self-ribbing grew. She began “Die” describing her uncle’s isolated self-loathing. She continued with love life experiences that crashed. Lee ended with her father’s death; he stopped breathing hours before being given life-saving medication. All the while, Lee spoke a truth most of us dare not speak: We believe, somehow, we will be exempt from suffering and dying.

In the finale, Lee, three guitarists and a drummer sang, “I’m gonna die some day. Then I’ll be gone and it will be okay”. Most of the Joe’s Pub’s crowd spontaneously joined their refrain. This sounds maudlin, but Lee’s intimate performance style possessed the quality of a lullaby. And the audience rocked in her cradle.

As for the dancing, it came briefly and unceremoniously as an encore. When Benedict Kupstas raised his drumsticks in the air, the cast commenced a casual jig. Arranged into tableaus, thanks to choreographer Faye Driscoll, they resembled holiday picture postcards, which make life look sweeter than it is.

“Gonna Die” will be repeated at Joe’s Pub three more times (April 29-30). It’s a feel-good show, uncannily leading us to consider the inevitable: Death.









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