Fail Safe


The Psychic Readings Co., The Failures, 2016. Performance view, November 4, 2016.

FAILURE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a ripe subject for theater. The stars don’t ever align for Romeo and Juliet. The three Prozorov sisters will never live happily ever after. Godot won’t arrive.

The world’s stage is no different. The current spectacle of the forty-fifth President—his sociopathic twists of fact and fiction, stories told to seize the spotlight, to succeed—promises no happy endings either. It is part of the dispirit of our age that we must recognize that certain people seek not only to align themselves with power and money, but, barring real access to these things, they land their pride on the right to entertainment. Call it zeitgeist, or writing our own fate, but three recent productions in New York took on the subjects of failure and entertainment and how, to some degree, one might triumph over, perhaps even trump, the endless onslaught of both.

“Here I am, a successful man, with a lotta good stuff going on, full of vigor and yeah, I have that little something.” So brags Ric (Ric Royer), the jittery-slick game-show host–cum–motivational speaker at the center of The Psychic Readings Co.’s sublimely absurd comedy-of-terrors, The Failures. Written by Royer and Peter Mills Weiss, the play is as crackerjack as it is crackpot, presenting for our viewing pleasure a pair of failures, played by Mills Weiss and Sarah Lamar as pitch-perfect portraits of deflation in gold-sequined sweatshirts and blue hospital pants. “They do not like their life,” explains Ric. “They don’t like being perpetually locked in an inescapable cycle of incapacity.” Tonight, we’re told, the failures will be given mundane tasks to perform. If they fail, then all remains as it is. If they succeed, they will unleash the wrath of Zothe (Anoushe Shoja)—“a merciless and heartless administrator of cosmic consequence”—on the hapless and unsuspecting Loth (Jon Swift), freshly plucked from the front row. No matter the outcome, the audience is, of course, encouraged to enjoy the show.

Needless to say, the failures fail. (It’s their destiny as well as their duty, after all.) We watch as Zothe shanks Loth in the kidneys with a screw, forces him to drink expired Drano, cuts off his thumb and shreds it between the whirring blades of a fan, sending pieces flying everywhere. As he’s tortured, Loth howls in mortal agony, spewing some of the play’s most disarmingly astute lines: “The real horror here is that it’s not experienced as horror, but as comedy!” and “It’s fear of failure that leads one to design systems in which failure is the desired outcome.”

“The key to success is failure!” sings the cast in the play’s buoyant but sinister denouement, which involves Zothe becoming “not weird anymore,” finding a romantic partner, and opening a chain of donut shops. As it turns out, success can seem a lot like failure, depending on how you look at it. As a monster, Zothe was at least charismatic, strange, determined. Now she’s smug, well-off, and not as fun to watch. Why choose success? As Loth says in the moments before his death: “There are only three independent impulses in the human nature! And none of them are to entertain! They are to survive, survive, survive.”

Forced Entertainment, Real Magic , 2016. Performance view, La MaMa Theater, New York, January 5, 2017. Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, and Jerry Killick. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Survive—of course we must—but to what end? There’s no mortal threat hanging over the three characters in Forced Entertainment’s exasperating comedy Real Magic. Rather, the condition in which company members Claire Marshall, Jerry Killick, and Richard Lowdon find themselves is that of eternal return, stuck as they are in an endless, tedious game show from which they cannot seem to free themselves. The consequence of their failure is repetition: They keep going round and round for more rounds. Think of it as Sartre’s No Exit for the twenty-four-hour infotainment era: It’s never made clear if an escape from all this canned dazzle is impossible, or if in truth, is “wanted.”

The game that Claire, Jerry, and Richard play seems designed to fail: They’re asked to read one another’s minds to guess the word that one of them is thinking. Each in their turn plays one of three roles: guesser, thinker, and host. The guesser has three chances to get it right, the thinker holds up a sign for the audience with their word written on it, and the host oversees the game. Claire’s word is CARAVAN. Jerry’s is ALGEBRA. Richard’s is SAUSAGE. Yet every time, every guesser guesses the same three wrong words—money, electricity, hole. After the game is lost they swap places and start all over again. The contradiction of their condition is that, of course, they play because they lose, and they lose because they play. Even as their patience, steam, and focus wane, they remain in the game. In fact, they can’t even cheat their way out of it.

Real Magic is in part a theatrical essay on one of the most bewitching forms in contemporary culture: the loop. As distinct from, say, Dante’s infamous circles, which led to deeper realms, a loop is stagnation in motion: self-arresting, ouroboric, collapsing backward and forward momentums into the same direction. A loop produces erosion, fatigue, confusion—a devolving that certainly incites change, though not the rousing kind. Forced Entertainment never lets up on this point, refusing to buoy the pummeling experience of watching the play by granting motivation or meaning to Claire, Jerry, and Richard. “Sometimes the answer to your problem is right in front of you,” says Claire as she and Jerry try to prompt Richard into just reading the sign when it’s his turn to guess. (He doesn’t.) Perhaps we’re to understand that one possible way forward—of up and out—is to simply pay better attention.

Philippe Quesne, La Mélancolie des dragons, 2015. Performance view, Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, Nanterre, France, January 6, 2015. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

A similar spirit possesses Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des dragons, a languorous and enchanting production that recalibrates the scales with which to measure magic and wonder, both in the theater and out in the world. Failure too kicks off this story: A stalled Volkswagen Rabbit has stranded a merry band of metalheads and their trailer in a snowy wood. They’re soon discovered by Isabelle, a mechanic—what luck!—who assumes they’re in a band. As it turns out, the men run a touring amusement park—we are independent, one explains—a series of spectacles that they offer to put on just for her. What unfolds is at once silly, sweet, and profound, as Isabelle (and we the audience) are treated to modest yet magnificent sights.

Their first trick: “Invisible Men,” an installation of wigs suspended on fishing wire, lit by stage lights, and blown around by a fan while loud music plays. Incredible, says Isabelle, agog. They show her how the trailer doubles as a library, housing a few stacks of art books, children’s books, and a copy of Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double. One machine fills the air with bubbles, another with smoke, a third with snow, “so that we can make winter in the summertime!” they tell Isabelle. Images of warm places appear in the cold landscape via a video projector. A bucket of water and a hose become a gurgling fountain. Enormous black plastic bags are inflated to become quivering monoliths in which the people move, but the floats stay in place.

The men explain every amusement as they go along, leaving no mystery as to how it’s all made. All the while, Isabelle oohs and ahhs, her amazement growing for the strange and funny show played before her. Seams out, the metalheads’ park creates real magic simply by failing illusion—or at least by proving that the power to produce wonder, via art, literature, theater, requires the eye of the beholder too. In other words, what we see is what we beget in the world. The only failure that must be guarded against is that of the imagination.

Jennifer Krasinski

The Psychic Readings Co.’s The Failures was presented on January 13 and 14 at Vital Joint as part of The Exponential Festival; Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic was presented from January 5 to 8 at La MaMa as part of P.S. 122’s 2017 COIL Festival; Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des dragons was presented from January 10 to 14 at the Kitchen as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.

Charlotte Moorman, Neon Cello, c. 1989, Plexiglas, neon tubing, and electrical parts, 48 1/2 x 16".

ONE TELEVISION MONITOR in “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s,” screened clips of Charlotte Moorman’s TV appearances. On the Merv Griffin Show in June 1967, Moorman performed John Cage’s 26’1.1499” for a String Player with the help of comedian Jerry Lewis. Holding a military-grade practice bomb that Moorman had converted into a cello, he asked the audiences, “Does she know I’m famous?” Gingerly, he kneeled down before her, his head bent toward her bare shoulders while she pulled a cello string taut up along his back, playing it with her bow. It’s a beguiling, confounding scene: Charlotte Moorman on Merv Griffin, interpreting a score by John Cage, treating Jerry Lewis as a human instrument—a role that, in previous renditions of 26’1.1499”, was filled by Nam June Paik, whose composition Opera Sextronique had landed Moorman in jail for indecent exposure the February prior, earning her the “topless cellist” notoriety that likely precipitated her booking on Merv Griffin in the first place.

This brief clip, funny and fraught, captures the complexities of “Charlotte’s Web.” Few figures are so exemplary of the neo-avant-garde’s sustained assault against modernist principles of medium specificity and artistic autonomy. A Juilliard-trained cellist, Moorman fused experimental composition with audio-visual theater; performed a repertoire of scores written by others; organized annual New York Avant Garde Festivals that assembled artists, musicians, and dancers from around the world in settings as varied as the Staten Island Ferry or Shea Stadium; and demonstrated a taste and talent for mobilizing technology toward spectacle and engaging audiences through mass media. From the start, she cultivated a sweetly demure and frankly sexual “Southern belle” persona, presenting herself in formal clothing or no clothing at all, which led to the catch-22 allegation that either she was a passive object deferring to the desires of her (mostly male) collaborators, or a narcissistic subject hiding behind shared authorship as an alibi for exhibitionism. (Should anyone believe we’ve moved past the era of judging women musicians for their sartorial choices, I recommend looking up Janet Malcolm’s recent New Yorker profile of virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang.) To untangle an incident like Moorman’s Merv Griffin spot, it’s helpful to look toward her personal copy of Cage’s 26’1.1499” score. In the exhibition’s catalogue, musicologist Jason Rosenholtz-Witt details how Moorman listed multiple solutions for each of the composition’s many technical challenges. This palimpsest of possibilities helped Moorman tailor her renditions to specific contexts, whether Carnegie Hall or Johnny Carson. However seemingly chaotic, her manhandling of Jerry Lewis on Merv Griffin followed fixed notations.

Nam June Paik, TV Bed, 1972–91. Performance view, Bochum Art Week, Bochum, West Germany, 1973. Charlotte Moorman. Photo: Hartmut Beifuss.

Rosenholtz-Witt’s discussion of 26’1.1499” is just one of several nuanced, informative analyses in the “Feast of Astonishments” catalogue. Musicologist Ryan Dohoney, for instance, decodes Moorman’s annotations to scores by Morton Feldman. On another register, art historian Hannah Higgins shows how Moorman planned the first Avant Garde Festival—its participants, publicity, personnel, and paraphernalia—on a single scribbled-over paper scrap. I point to these excellent contributions to raise a question: How can the sophistication of current scholarly approaches to the neo-avant-garde be better reflected in curatorial practice? That is, how does Dohoney’s expert reading of graphic scores, or Higgins’s attentiveness to hybrid forms of authorship, extend into an exhibition’s arrangement of objects in space? Organized by a team of curators at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, “Feast of Astonishments” falls into many familiar traps: an overreliance on placards to provide narration; low-hanging vitrines dense with documents and inimical to close study; displays that, without further contextualization, come off as relics, memorabilia, or props.

“Feast of Astonishments” is hardly the first exhibition to confront the difficulty of curating music. (Recall—as if you could forget—the Museum of Modern Art, New York’s deeply disheartening Björk retrospective.) An alternative approach might have showcased a fuller selection of her annotated scores, or more methodically parsed her individual collaborations, such as her technological experiments with Paik, her arrangements for photo-documentation with Peter Moore, her dialogue with Carolee Schneemann, or even her competition with that other indefatigable organizer, George Maciunas. It’s only through a canny focus on Moorman the interpreter, or Moorman the impresario, that an exhibition will offer much insight into Moorman the artist.

Colby Chamberlain

“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” ran September 8 through December 10 at the Grey Art Gallery in New York.