A new experimental musical playing in Exposition Park this month takes its name from a hidden track on Nirvana's Nevermind album. Arthur Peña, known for his work as a painter and as curator of the roving venue Vice Palace, wrote Endless/Nameless as an exploration of two types of death, the death of love and the death of a loved one, and the result is a fusion of art mediums that bends traditional expectations of a musical. The show had its first of three performances last weekend at The Reading Room; the others, which will feature different casts, take place on June 18 and 25.
These days, “Endless/Nameless” is simply the last track listed on digital copies of Nevermind. No mention of the song appeared in the liner notes of the original CD version; it showed up several minutes after what appeared to be the end of the album. Besides being a novelty, it was a shocking thing to hear coming out of the speakers, especially if you didn’t realize the CD was still playing.
Kurt Cobain alternates between horrified screams and world-weary groans reminiscent of songs like “Know” from Pink Moon, the album Nick Drake quickly recorded immediately before his mysterious death. Back in the ’90s, “Endless/Nameless” confused many people, and the reaction to Peña's creation on Saturday night was similar. The crowd waiting for it to begin at The Reading Room seemed unsure of what they were about to see, and afterward they were equally unable to describe it.
Peña really does suffer for his art. For him, painting is not relaxing or meditative. His creative process involves torturing himself with his worst fears and memories. Endless/Nameless was like stepping into his mind. When the performance began, the door was shut and viewers were left in a pitch-black room.
This show had three main components: Actors performing and singing scripts written by Peña, a music score and performances by various types of artists. Like a tour guide at a haunted house, Peña wandered through the crowd with a strobe light, turning on lamps with colored light bulbs to initiate scenes beneath them. When one scene ended, he would turn off that light and turn another one on, setting off a scene in a different part of the room. This technique provided enough separation between the scenes to make the show episodic.
The most memorable scene was one about a loved one on a deathbed, performed by Ariel Saldivar and Drew Chapa. They lay on the floor, prompting the audience to quickly make way, and recited lines across from each other, with their feet touching. This made the two look like a single form, perhaps halfway between this world and the afterlife. And just like lying in a deathbed, their position on the concrete floor, surrounded by people looking down them and trying to make sense of what was happening, probably wasn't comfortable.
Hip-hop artist Lord Byron's stunning and devastatingly raw performance was one of the best of the night. He communicated the experience of having a panic attack after a breakup. That can be as painful as seeing a loved die, and in some ways it's comparable. A whimper becomes a scream, disorientation hits and there's a struggle to breathe before it ends, hopefully with finding a hug to collapse into. In its frightening brilliance, his performance recalled Joy Division's Ian Curtis charging up a crowd with an epileptic dance.
Fatima-Ayan Malika Hirsi dragged a table, chair and typewriter to the center of the room for her scene. She took the typewriter out of its case and started typing a poem. The poem was left on the ground and read in another scene.
At first, Poppy Xander’s keyboard score brought Angelo Badalementi’s work for David Lynch to mind. But the light kept shining on her and, toward the end of an hour-long performance, it started to feel tiresome to an audience that was hot and exasperated from an emotional roller coaster. But then again, perhaps that was the point. Would anyone say they enjoy hearing an organ at a funeral?
In a show that was a mixed bag, artist Dennis Congdon reading a passage with humor and volubility to spare was a high point, but he was definitely the odd man out. You know how Sam Elliott is great as the narrator of The Big Lebowski, but you have no idea why he is in the film? Elliott didn't know either; he told the Coen Brothers he was happy to be there but wanted to know why. That's how it was with Congdon: We're not sure how he fit in, but we're glad he was there.
Toward the end of the show, Michael Morris projected a video on one of the walls showing a couple having sex. The film, scored by a Lily Taylor song that was viscerally evocative of sorrow, became grainier with every frame.
It was reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen painting grids such as the "Marilyn Diptych," which contains a single image multiplied until it's increasingly obscured, as if decomposing. The video also brought French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to mind, with his suggestion that each copy diminishes the original, turning the symbols into the symbolized. Memory functions the same way: We remember the last time we remembered something, instead of remembering the actual event.
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Endless/Nameless separated its viewers from reality, immersing them in emotion for an hour in a hot, dark room. The musical was fresh and provocative, but when the door opened and the streetlight flooded in, it was admittedly a welcome release from grief's stranglehold and into the world.
See Endless/Nameless with different casts at 8 p.m. June 18 and 25 at The Reading Room (3715 Parry Ave.). Admission is free. For more info, visit thereadingroom-dallas.blogspot.com.