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The Little Skeleton That Could Not- An Essay

17 Dec


Cake in 15 imagines itself as a “culture blog”. Yeah, there is a good dose of music, but we are all omnivores here, with wide and variegated interests. As writers, photographers, actors, critics, commentators and god-knows-what-else, we are not just content to let culture happen around us, but attempt to be an active part of the discourse and agents of our own change. In that vein, and full of shameless self-promotion, I offer up an essay that I wrote following The Little Skeleton That Could Not by Lamb Lays with Lion, the theater company of which Cake in 15 contributors c.a.s. and Dan O. are members. It’s not your usual blog fare, and if you don’t like it skip it. Just ’cause you’re in Blockbuster doesn’t mean you have to rent a movie.

WHO ARE WE AND HOW DID I GET HERE?
The Little Skeleton That Could Not by Lamb Lays with Lion 11/20/2008, The Hexagon Bar

What just happened on stage? Nervous laughter is good, a punctuating belly laugh is better, seasoned, confounded silence is best. As one reviewer put it, “It all would have been in rather poor taste if it hadn’t actually been quite funny.”

The Little Skeleton That Could Not, the latest group work by Lamb Lays with Lion played out like this at the Hexagon Bar on November 20th, 2008. It is a triptych of short scenes, each one growing with misplaced enthusiasm and senses of well-being.

In the first vignette, LLwL company member Jayne Deis takes the stage, obviously not in the best of health, hiding behind her notebook from the harsh illumination provided by the single handheld spotlight and proceeds to tell us that she is going to tell us about the 12 Steps of alcoholism. Instead, though, of reading from the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step program, she haltingly starts off on a list of her own creation that has darker, more personal overtones; “Number One. If you look into the mirror and find you have nothing to live for, you might be an alcoholic.” Pitiable down the list, she re-visits points until she is interrupted by Ashley Smith and Julia Mae Fairbanks Thompson, dressed in matching black pant and white t-shirts who inform her that this was last week’s performance, that she missed because she was “passed out at Memory Lanes.”

Smith and Thompson, having dispatched Deis, proceed into “an informative talk” about “an important subject”: AIDS. You can see the parenthetical quotes around their dialogue, the vernacular spins off from PSAs and After School Specials and Fairbanks one-ups Smith with biological details about the functioning of the HIV retrovirus. The discussion of transmission, a serious topic, devolves into scatological repetition of bodily fluids as the flustered twosome try to keep their place. Their scene is abruptly ended by the appearance of a skeleton onstage.

The skeleton (Melissa Anne Murphy) smiles and has an upbeat, sunny, if flip disposition. She, too, is here with an important message. She is here to talk about anorexia, and how it may be right for you. Look at the wonders it has done for her. She talks of becoming a role model for other anorexics, her temptations and the support her community brings her. If she were talking about recovery from alcoholism it would be a downright heartwarming scene. But she is not, the crowd is uncomfortable, heckles a bit and then the skeleton is interrupted by Thompson and Smith who charge back on stage with “AI” and “DS” scrawled on their shirts and skull make-up smeared on. Look at what they’ll do to pull attention back to themselves. There is a back and forth, dramatically lit, of heavy breathing, statistics that are patently false, upbeat non-sequiturs of encouragement, building until the band that has amassed quietly behind them tears into a howling rock-blues number. “Die Die Die” goes the band and the trio onstage galvanize into a goofy show-tunes dance offstage right. Deis charges back on only to be chased away by the skeleton. The band keeps playing and goes into their regular set.

What just happened here?

The closest extant category that Skeleton could be dropped in to, and was in post-show discussion, would be agit-prop. But this is no cardboard cut-out protest with a single-minded end of revolution. If Skeleton is to be considered agit-prop, it must be considered so in newer and more subtle terms. Jan Cohen-Cruz outlines these terms in the introduction to her collection of essays entitled Radical Street Performance:

“Notwithstanding,… agit-prop is possible in ‘culturally pluralistic’ societies, but with these caveats: 1. as social contexts become more complex, agit-prop may serve a an educational function around a specific issue, not necessarily advocating general revolution; 2. the actors must believe that they know a solution to a compelling social problem and be prepared to take the same steps they are urging upon audiences.”

Vaguely, the work of Lamb Lays with Lion could be considered within these parameters, but subverts them both. There is an “educational function” implicit in the use of data: you now know that 1-800-CDC-INFO is the number to call and www.hivtest.com are resources about disease control. Jayne Deis serves as an apropos discourse on alcoholism, given the locale of the performance. Even so, Skeleton, is more about the conflict of datas, the falsity and truths of abutting statements and their uncomfortable relationships. The Skeleton character builds up a positive community taken directly from support sites by and for anorexics to keep them anorexic, but this is not disclosed to the audience, nor is it presented at face value- she is a skeleton! A happy, smiling, fulfilled skeleton telling you how great anorexia can be. No wonder there are uncomfortable laughs; even if it doesn’t fall into the category, Lamb Lays with Lion is surely trafficking in agitation.

Nor Lamb Lays with Lion does not posit a solution or bring down a moral judgment with which they exhort the audience. The show starts out identifiably strange and plunges into absurdity, and this keys into how the performers identify themselves. Jayne Deis’ “Jayne Deis” might just be a hungover Jayne, a slight abstraction- you know that girl. Therein lies some of the original humor. Telling stories of drinking cigarette butts the morning after appeals to a base-level gross out humor, but also, for the young bar crowd assembled, contains a mote of self-identification. If you haven’t done it, you probably know someone who has. Thompson and Smith’s “Julia” and “Ashley” step up that distance, transforming themselves into an empty sounding board from where their research and the data they hear echoes forth. The Skeleton is familiar in tone, but so far afield in content that it makes conscious and exposes that this is a performance, and not a testimonial. The malleability of our own identity and our desire to hear information that conforms to expected conventions is toyed with and exposed in subtle, disturbing ways. The sources of information are untrustworthy, what we identify with may be further away than we think, we should be able to describe that disconnect.

So again, what is it? It is rock and roll; self-indulgent and generous, it is theatre; playing with shifting identity and information, scripted and spontaneous and not what one would expect at a bar. The words you heard had come out of a process of discussion, research and play. The scene’s absurdity comes from our own senses and the barrage of information, all of them untrustworthy in their own way. As artist Jenny Holzer’s proposed in her series “Truisms”: “Description is more valuable than metaphor”. Lamb Lays with Lion is here to describe, channel and filter the world around you, not to make it easier for you to understand.

* De Young, David “Lamb Lays with Lion w/Plastic Chord video from the Hexagon” (How Was The Show Blog, http://howwastheshow.blogspot.com/2008/11/lamb-lays-with-lion-w-plastic-chord.html)
** Cohen-Cruz, Jan Radical Street Perfomance, (London: Routledge Publishing, 1998) 14
*** Holzer, Jenny The Venice Installation, (Buffalo, NY: The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, 1990) 3

Also at the Lamb Lays with Lion website: www.lamblayswithlion.org

The Little Skeleton That Could Not will be presented at the Bedlam Theatre January 16-18 in conjunction with Paint the Town by Insurgent Theatre from Milwaukee and musical performance by To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie.

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