Me, myself, and why
Fred Curchack is performing cunnilingus. In front of a live audience.
Actually, DJ Pollochek, an obscure experimental theater artist, is going down on Serena, the veiled dancer at a sleazy subterranean strip joint called Club X. Both characters are being played by Curchack, a slightly less obscure experimental theater artist.
Curchack, wearing round, respectable wire-rimmed glasses and black clothing, straddles a stool in front of a music stand, where he moves the pages of dialogue fast or slow to match the alternating pianissimo and fortissimo of his acrobatic voice. All of it depends on how enthusiastic the sex acts are.
DJ Pollochek and Serena are really into each other, so voices and pages are flying.
As Serena, Curchack leans back on the stool, stretches his legs on either side of the music stand, and begins to tremble, pant, whine, and bellow in slapstick orgasmic ecstasy. Pollochek is Curchack's "Don Juan for the new millennium," a fellow who prides himself on his oral ability to please women. "I specialize in married women and virgins," a swaggering Pollochek tells the audience assembled in the Undermain basement space. "But anyone with a labia will do."
He's delivering his specialty to the mysterious, beautiful Serena. Curchack, to simulate the act, stretches out his mouth like a duck's bill between both thumbs and forefingers and flutters his lips to make a sputtering, comically un-sexy sound. Serena howls, writhes, begs for more.
Pollochek begins a description of cunnilingus so elaborately purple that it completely dismantles the prurience in such a display. "Blowing the fleshy flugelhorn," Curchack coos. "Tooting on the sweet sashimi saxophone..."
A couple, a young man and a woman, sit in the front row. They're laughing and twisting their heads away from the bawdy shenanigans onstage. They've been warned -- advance press for Live Love Acts, Fred Curchack's newest one-man show, has declared it "unsuitable for children and simple-minded, puritanical adults." The young couple are neither. Both are embarrassed, but their involuntary chortling signals they won't be walking out in disgust anytime soon.
Indeed, if you don't recognize the innocent buffoonery behind much of Curchack's re-imagining of the Don Juan myth, then you're hunting for a reason to be outraged about sexual content in art. Live Love Acts, his 23rd solo piece and a self-produced performance (the Undermain space is the venue, but Live Love Acts is not an Undermain production), recounts the story of an underappreciated performance artist who ditches his latest wife, descends into an all-night erotic romp with marionettes, strippers, and demented puppeteers, and is eventually undone by something like true love.
Cheerful lunacy abounds amidst the literary allusions: The Dallas-based, 52-year-old Curchack may be America's least pretentious, most benevolent performance artist, a stand-up comic, really, a vulgar vaudevillian clown who'll do anything for a laugh. In his past works, he's worn multicolored fright wigs and google-eyed glasses; talked in goofy cartoon voices; made dolls fight and fornicate onstage; and had a decided passion for drag, portraying frumpy matrons and sexy Euro sirens with equal relish. He cites Ernie Kovacs, Sid Caesar, Howdy Doody, and a childhood spent rubber-cemented in front of the tube as influences equally important as his favorite writers, artists, and thinkers. He is a very good-natured freak whose deformity -- he was born with high brow and low brow irreparably fused -- propels him to display himself again and again for your amazement.
But this circus exhibitionist has written more than 60 theatrical works, earned Guggenheim Fellowships and National Endowment for the Arts grants (when they were still available to individual artists), traveled the world to study Japanese theatrical technique and Indian philosophy, and won raves in his native New York City as well as in Poland and South America. It's safe to say that Curchack, a resident professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, is this city's most accomplished theater artist, far outstripping Dallas Theater Center's Richard Hamburger or anyone at the Undermain Theatre.
Dallas isn't widely considered a theater town, though, so to declare his prominence here isn't going far enough. Curchack, after all, is internationally recognized as an interpreter of William Shakespeare, with remarkable one-man amalgams of epic Shakespearean casts like What Fools These Mortals Be and Stuff as Dreams Are Made On winning awards at performance festivals around the United States and Europe.
Live Love Acts represents the artist abandoning some old habits. In his non-Shakespeare plays, Curchack's tendency to expose his own foibles behind the footlights seemed to be growing more ferocious in middle age. Live Love Acts, however, contains less unabashed autobiography -- unlike previous efforts such as The Comeback of Freddy Chickan, an excoriating depiction of his own fame lust, or his mid-life suicide comedy A Surprise Party. The fictionalized, eventful plot and dream symbolism in this sexually insatiable new piece apply a more disciplined distance to his mania. Also stripped away are the puppets, masks, light and smoke effects, and video monitors that have characterized his most famous shows up to now. Only Curchack's body, voice, and dextrous verbal dances are available to the audience to create a troubling protagonist -- an artist who, frustrated with mere cult status, turns to blind promiscuity and becomes entangled with a series of women who reveal for the audience just how myopic he is about himself and his relationships.
"I'm not just waving a feminist flag about negative male archetypes," Curchack says of DJ Pollochek, the predator who confuses appetite for ability and is eventually undone by a tardy introduction to glorious intimacy: He falls in love with the stripper Serena and discovers that his relationship with her is more complex than that of nude performer and horny spectator. "I'm saying that, if I'm honest with myself, there is an unflattering aspect to my own psyche that has been nurtured by the culture which has raised me. It's sex as competition and hostile expression."
Key to Curchack's theatrical philosophy is the idea of the theater artist confronting himself onstage, hopefully encouraging audiences to at least stick a toe into the dark pool of their own shadow side, as Jung referred to it. Yet if he admits Live Love Acts is a continuation of that self-confrontation, a direct glare at his own sexism with both headlights blazing, the show is also one of his most universal. It is whole and complete outside the Curchack canon and could be widely produced and performed by actors up to the vocal task. To that end, while on sabbatical from UTD, Curchack is setting down a few of his pieces, Shakespearean adaptations as well as self-penned stuff, into text for possible publication. After clinging to his words for so long, he's beginning to like the thought of someone else spouting them. It greatly expands the possibility of self-confrontation, by other artists and more audiences.
"Like everyone else, I just want to be useful," he says with a gentle, un-Pollochekian grin.
Fred Curchack doesn't know why he wanted to be a performer so early in life, but imaginary playmates he created at age four were members of a traveling troupe of actors with whom he put on shows. By the time he hit elementary school in New York City, his parents -- dad was a photographer turned electronics engineer, mom taught secretaries in a college business department -- were heavily involved in community theater. But they didn't showcase the treacly, A.R. Gurney/Neil Simon-type fare typical of today.
"They rehearsed Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and Sartre's No Exit in my living room, which is perfect, because those are living-room pieces," Curchack says. "The children weren't allowed to see the shows, but I heard some of the rehearsing. At the time, the dialogue made sense to me. It sounded a lot like the conversations I heard most of the time in my living room." He laughs.
He took theater at the High School of the Performing Arts and got a master's degree at Queens College. From there, Curchack plunged into movement-intensive, philosophically grounded forms of international theatrical expression: Balinese Topeng, Indian Kathakali, Japanese Noh. He also began to study the writings of a man who remains one of the greatest influences on his life and art -- Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. He is wary of discussing the influence of Gurdjieff, because "it can come out as cultish gobbledygook. There's so many idiot fringe lunatic zombies who espouse the name Gurdjieff, and he knew it during his lifetime. He said they 'take crumbs from my idea table and turn it into a mill for grinding out nonsense.' There's zero attempt by serious students to persuade people about his philosophies."
To accurately describe the ideas of Gurdjieff would take more than the entire space of this newspaper. After a youth spent traveling Asia and Africa and studying oral traditions, Gurdjieff escaped Russia at the outbreak of the 1917 Revolution and eventually settled in France, where he wrote in cafes and took pupils until he died in 1949. All you should know for the purposes of Curchack is that Gurdjieff espoused a lifelong process of self-awareness called The Work whose ultimate goal is "waking up." That's a phrase Curchack uses constantly in our conversations, and he sees his stage work as an attempt to "wrest myself from the sleepwalking state that I and most humans exist in, to become aware of myself underneath the routine behavior and reflexive palaver that spills out of my mouth." And he insists that one of his performance rules is never to discuss The Work in his stage shows: "It becomes not a description of, but hopefully an embodiment of the results of The Work." To be fair to Curchack, one would never glean any evangelical intent behind his performances, probably because, as he says, he works "in the negative. I want to show the importance of self-awareness by showing people who are completely unaware of themselves, and the consequences of that. Don Juan is unredeemed because he refuses to look at all the messy, hostile, aggressive shit that's pouring out of him."
But there's a very slick downslope from self-confrontation to confession to onstage masturbation, which Live Love Acts features as a literal, self-deprecating metaphor. Curchack's work has slipped in and around all these points on the scale: Both The Comeback of Freddy Chickan and The Inquest of Freddy Chickan featured Curchackian alter egos who pined shamelessly, abrasively, and fruitlessly for big money and Hollywood-style fame as reward for a lifetime dedicated to fringe theatrical craft. A Surprise Party features a man who decides to commit suicide on his 50th birthday (Curchack performed it at the Dallas Video Festival the year he turned 50). A party ensues, with friends, children, ex-wives, girlfriends, all coming with voracious needs and recriminations that justify his pulling the trigger. Where do the danger zones lie in such self-mythologizing?
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."
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.
This regret has informed his work for years now. Both Live Love Acts and Curchack's more nakedly self-referential solo pieces are populated with vengeful and sorrowful women who have been jilted.
For the last two years, Curchack has been in a relationship with stage actress Shannon Kearns, who has just finished giving eight performances a week as the matricidal Electra at the acclaimed Clarence Brown Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Indeed, she is preparing to move to Dallas and live with Curchack at his home in Richardson. They spent much of last summer traveling up the East and West coasts together, visiting friends and family members, and pausing for the occasional gig Curchack had scheduled. Kearns was around Curchack at the inception of Live Love Acts, acted as a witness to the piece as it evolved from idea into dialogue and blossomed as character. He shared the work with her at every stage.
"With the way Fred works, you just have to let it all come out first," Kearns notes. "You can't stop the flow. And then you examine what you have. Fred would read parts to me knowing that if I found any of it truly frightening, I'd say something. And I would've said something. But I was aware of the angle of irony that Fred was coming from. Plus, the material is just so outrageous, you know that it's a very small part of what's in a lot of men that has been magnified and refracted and exaggerated.
"I feel confident in saying that he's a kind, gentle man. The Fred Curchack I know is not at all like DJ Pollochek." She pauses, laughing a little. "But obviously, there's a part of DJ somewhere in Fred."
The prestigious Magic Theatre in San Francisco will likely produce Live Love Acts next year. But after artistic director Larry Eilenberg saw a videotaped performance of the piece, he asked Curchack to deliver it live for some of his female colleagues.
"There is a lesbian feminist overclass in San Francisco," Curchack says. "And when I went to perform it, they were having a lesbian theater festival. I said, 'Larry, bring on the lesbians.' He assembled a female audience -- I'm not actually sure how many of them were gay -- and they were howling. They were laughing harder than some of the men who've seen the show. One of the audience members came up afterward, gave me a hug, and said that the show was a 'chick flick.' I don't want to speculate on that statement, but it was drenched in meaning. Anyway, it passed the test."
If you get the sense that Curchack is wallowing in carnality as well as condemning sexual exploitation in Live Love Acts, you would not be mistaken. But there's a purpose to the faux hedonism. His decades spent studying Tibetan and Eastern philosophies have created a bit of a schism between his past and today. Curchack describes himself as a "secular Jewish guy" who observes Passover and Hanukkah simply because they remind him of good feelings from his childhood, not because they hold personal religious significance. Indeed, he describes the Judeo-Christian tradition as "damaging," because "it splits the body and the mind, turning the physical into the profane and the emotional and spiritual into the sacred. That's bullshit. The body is an interrelated series of physical, mental, and emotional energies, and sex is the highest expression of all those united. Or, it should be the highest expression. But the Puritan roots in our culture intervene. They lead us not only to snicker at sex, but when we do treat it and congratulate ourselves on how liberated we are, we render it superficially, turn it into something worth being ashamed of."
Of course, Curchack does want you to giggle -- hell, he'd be thrilled by a guffaw -- at all the ridiculous rutting in Live Love Acts. But he puts his wisdom into the words of this show. For all the baroque porno burlesque he rolls out, he makes a clear morality play out of DJ Pollochek's rampaging ignorance. This Don Juan thinks he's giving to women through marathon sessions of cunnilingus, but he's keeping the most basic sexual essence of himself inside. DJ cannot come; he dare not leave himself vulnerable with an orgasm. He doesn't ejaculate, he tells frustrated partners, he "injaculates."
That's the kind of self-deception that Curchack hopes to escape by using his theater to make fun of himself, and then us, and hopefully invite us to realize that there is meaning beneath the absurdity of all our arrogant assumptions, expectations, and prefab identities.
"It's spoken about in every religion and every culture, the idea of emerging from illusion, from the lie of surface existence. That extends to the symbolism of theater. I guess that's why Shakespeare used acting as a symbol for life, for the illusion of life, for the 'play' of all things and the seven seasons of man. Theater is a symbol par excellence for all human activity, which is unconscious, asleep, separated from reality. If you can have even the tiniest little light shining into your unconsciousness, your sleepwalking state, that can indicate the possibility of waking up, of liberation."
Whether Live Love Acts will nudge anyone to confront their own cruelty and folly is debatable. Curchack the entertainer fires on all cylinders in this show, which means you may not get a chance to consider your original sins. Audiences may laugh and be creeped out so much by the man's literate antics, they'll forget to apply Jean Cocteau's famous dictum: "People read books to see if they're in them." One thing's for sure: Fred Curchack is growing as an artist -- not up, as he likes to say, but growing down, so deep into a subconscious of common sensations that he just might bump into you along the way.
Live Love Acts, written, directed, and performed by Fred Curchack, runs Thursday-Saturday at 8:15 p.m. through February 26 at the Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. Call (214) 747-5515.
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