Me, myself, and why

Fred Curchack, one of America's foremost performance artists, whips up an orgy of self-confrontation with Live Love Acts

Robert Xavier Rodriguez understands the trickiness of Curchack's self-confrontation theory. He's a nationally prominent contemporary composer and longtime friend of Fred Curchack's. They've just collaborated on another version of the Don Juan myth, which will premiere at the San Antonio Symphony in May. Curchack will puppeteer as well as play the devil.

"I think the important thing to keep in mind is that art is communication between the artist and the audience," Rodriguez says. "If the artist is only looking at himself, then he's not really communicating anything to the audience. Fred has mastered that, because he wants to entertain. He understands that you have to start from the artist's personal experience as the beginning of a bridge to the audience's personal experience.

"When I critique compositions of young composers, students will come to me and tell me about things that are deeply felt, experiences, a relative who died of a terrible disease. And just because this terrible thing happened in their life, they think the audience is going to have the same reaction to their music. The bridge doesn't always work. You have to look at it from the audience's perspective as well as from your own."

Mark Graham
Fred Curchack portrays DJ Pollochek, a "Don Juan for the new millennium" who prides himself on his oral ability to please women.
Mark Graham
Fred Curchack portrays DJ Pollochek, a "Don Juan for the new millennium" who prides himself on his oral ability to please women.

Peter Rose is Curchack's oldest friend, an experimental filmmaker with works in New York's Museum of Modern Art as well as this year's Whitney Biennial, and a buddy since they were both in Mrs. Leshay's second-grade class at P.S. 193. Rose has been intimately familiar with Curchack's work since the late '60s, when the performer was writing fictional, highly confrontational protest pieces about the Vietnam War at La Mama in New York.

"I don't think [self-confrontation] works for every artist," he says. "When the person doing the self-confronting is larger than life, as Fred is onstage, then that confrontation can have some valence for other people. But if their psyche is shallow, it can be insufferable."

Rose sees another reason why Curchack would be turning inward to mine his own mother lode of neuroses. "He has always wanted to be known as a writer," he notes. "He earned a substantial reputation for reworking the writings of Shakespeare. After a while, he became constrained by his own success. By stripping down Live Love Acts to just a staged reading, his words become the focus."

Driving narrative and potent imagery prove that Curchack the writer is as formidable as Curchack the Shakespearean medium. Better yet, Live Love Acts avoids self-pity and slobbering confession with its almost mythological remove from Curchack the performer. Scenes in the show, in fact, unfold with the eerie, illogical logic of a dream. DJ Pollochek, the Don Juan manifestation, falls in love with a marionette named Scheherazade (the woman who spun wondrous stories in 1001 Arabian Nights to captivate her prince husband so he wouldn't murder her) who's owned and abused by a demented puppeteer named Korn. Pollochek is startled to discover a resemblance between Scheherazade and Serena, the dancer whose veil hides a horrifying reality that remains a mystery through much of the play. As we descend from Korn's workshop into the bowels of Club X, where group sex and violent retaliation erupt without warning, we forget that the Curchack hallmarks -- masks, puppets, light effects, and video monitors -- are absent. But they are not missed in all the visceral, fluid-soaked verbosity by us or by the performer.

"My 'trademark effects' became a pain in the ass," Curchack says. "I've studied visual art extensively, and I paint and sculpt. Unfortunately, I received a lot of approbation early on for finding visual solutions to theatrical questions. And I said, 'Well, golly, they liked it that time; I should do it again.' But after a while, I became conscious of it as shtick, the things that people predicted from me."

As for fear of drowning in the tar pits of self-confrontation onstage, Curchack says he survives by constantly clinging to the bloated negative examples in other work, the shows where everyone, both actor and ticketbuyer, is absolved of thinking about themselves and their place in the world.

"I have a theory of why the major theater companies have to stage A Christmas Carol every year," Curchack says. "Mind you, I love Dickens. But that show pays for the rest of the season because Scrooge dies for our sins. We can come in, watch this man develop a conscience and find his humanity, and then walk out the same conscienceless creeps we were before. I had a lot of problems with Brecht's politics, but he was a wonderful poet and an interesting theorist. He thought the Aristotelian idea of catharsis, of the audience purging their emotions through the tragic hero, was bullshit. He wanted the audience to confront their own emotions, to take responsibility for them."

An intrusive but necessary question: If Curchack is examining unflattering aspects of his own psyche, then how much of the sex-gluttonous, sometimes insulting, always self-absorbed DJ Pollochek in Live Love Acts is an expression of Curchack's own shadow side?

Curchack got a divorce from his wife seven years ago. They'd been married for 16 years and had two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom Curchack is close to. All Curchack will say is that he's had a series of relationships since then, that all of them were monogamous, but that he has "great remorse" for acting in Don Juanly ways as a younger man.

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