John Kelly’s Escape Artist Cheats Death
John Kelly’s latest performance piece The Escape Artist, currently playing at PS 122 through April 30, is one of his most memorable, a depiction of an artist escaping into a dream world of Caravaggio imagery as he lies immobilized on a hospital gurney in the wake of a possibly catastrophic trapeze accident. As with Kelly’s recent portrayal of Egon Schiele, it’s imbued with Kelly’s signature blend of wit and darkness. Kelly’s initial inspiration for the piece was an encounter with a Caravaggio painting, and how the painter’s modus operandi was to find beauty in the most grotesque and macabre. Years later, Kelly’s own narrow escape from a potentially lethal trapeze accident provided the impetus to bring the work to completion. As Kelly took care to explain, this piece is more inspired by Caravaggio than any attempt to depict him, considering how little we know today about his life, plus the fact that Kelly alluded to not feeling particularly close to him, at least biographically.
What might be most impressive about Kelly’s performance here is that except for a single song, he sings the entire piece lying flat on his back (if you think that’s easy, try it and see how much luck you have hitting all the notes in the wide, three-octave range that Kelly explores, top to bottom, and nails every time). A lithe, well-muscled, youthful presence, his ability to transcend the terror of possible paralysis and maybe even death via an irrepressible joie de vivre and gallows humor as he stares at the ceiling is genuinely inspiring. Behind Kelly, Jeff Morey’s video design puts Kelly’s own face front and center, looking up, between two screens featuring a revolving cast of actors depicting gently playful homoerotic tableaux based on Caravaggio themes.
The narrative could be a lot of things – mawkish, terrified, tormented or even pathetic – but Kelly refuses to give in. As the torment grows, so does the surreal humor in his perceptions. Unable to see anything more than what’s above him, he grows to rely on his other senses to pick up on his grim surroundings: the drunks bleeding from the car crash, the nurse flatly trying to calm the demented senile patient as she may have done dozens of times before, the junkie in the adjacent bed who perhaps predictably has managed to draw everyone’s attention. Kelly intersperses a series of vividly plaintive songs, all but two of the originals with melodies by the queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria, Carol Lipnik, whose vocals also appear behind Kelly along with John DiPinto on piano, accordion and flute, Nioka Workman on cello and Justin Smith on violin.
The songs alone are reason to see this show. The Dazzling Darkness, with its eerie Pink Floyd piano gives Kelly a launching pad for his soaring upper register as a choir of voices echoes behind him hypnotically when it reaches its closing crescendo. The amusing yet disconcerting noir 60s pop of Cupid Song comes along just as Kelly looks up to see a strange figure – or hallucination – who’s just stopped in to say that he cares. Cara Vaggio brings back a hypnotic cello-driven ambience that leaps to an anthemic chorus; DiPinto’s austere arrangement of Oblivion Soave – music by Claudio Monteverdi, words by Giovanni Francesco Busenello – puts Kelly’s crystalline choirboy delivery front and center. The funniest of these is Kelly’s own Profit Blues, musing on what jobs – ones that pay, and ones that don’t – might be lost as a result of paralysis or convalescence. Eventually, a clever out-of-body experience materializes, captured as psychedelic piano pop: “I am the watcher,” Kelly muses.
The best of the Lipnik/Kelly collaborations is the unselfconsciously haunting All That’s Left, a September song set overlooking the Hudson (New York is a constant if frequently elusive presence here). The best of all of them is Kelly’s solo piece, a title track of sorts, which he plays solo on Stratocaster, an austere 1960s psychedelic folk melody filtered through a thick cloud of reverb and sustain. “When I hear all the shallow talk, should I aim or just should I just shoot the breeze…Could I leave this city island, penetrate its water wall?” he asks. By now it’s clear how this will end. There’s also a gloriously terse, noir version of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice that appears as something of a surprise. Directed starkly by Dudley Saunders, less Renaissance Italy than 80s afterdark New York, Saint Vincent’s style, it’s a must-see for anyone who gets that reference.
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