My so-called life

OK, let's see a show of hands from everyone who wants to retire the phrase "performance art" from the critical lexicon. Included in the sea of upraised palms are Laurie Anderson, Tim Miller, and two Dallas writer-actors, Dalton James and John S. Davies -- enough votes to spur this humble theater critic into banishing the phrase from his column forever. Exceptions will be made only when a performer insists on referring to himself as a performance artist, in which case a concerted campaign to humiliate him will ensue.

Much as the elasticity of the label "alternative music" rendered it meaningless almost the first time it was uttered, so "performance art" seems to be an entirely unwieldy idiom. Originally, the term applied to the work of stage auteurs who employed at least one electronic medium and usually forsook traditional narrative arcs. But theater is performance art, and that one word seems so much nobler and more ominous, certainly a calling that's worth taking a vow of poverty for, right?

Actually, "storytelling" might be more precise when discussing two performance pieces currently running in Deep Ellum spaces. Of course, that implies a certain barefoot, folksy craftiness, and who has the constitution to withstand the snickers when they enter needlepoint designs in an abstract expressionist competition? No, with Auto Neurotic and Beem! respectively, the aforementioned Dalton James and John S. Davies want to do something that's less about reading crafted parables to the tots at their feet and more about challenging the notion that the storyteller is master, omniscient, in control. Both performances are heavily fictionalized autobiographical sketchbooks in which the made-up characters (and I have a strong sense of where fact ends and fantasy begins, based on extended conversations with each man) seem to snatch the pencils out of the actors' hands and begin filling the pages with illustrations made of strokes so bold, they almost surprise the actors. This sense that both performers could at any point fall off the beasts they've constructed gives both pieces risk and urgency.

There are marked differences in the two solo performances and solo performers -- James is gay, Davies is straight, and both consult their sexuality frequently during these shows, as if it were a grumpy muse; Auto Neurotic is imagistic and free-associative and consciously rhythmic in its wordplay, while Beem! proves to be leaner, more focused, and hewn toward a blunter, more testosteronal-elliptical style. Both shows, written by the actors who deliver them, reveal the maturity of their artistry in the sense that the artists clearly understand their strengths and square-dance heartily with them for the ticketbuyers' edification. And the shortcomings of both performances may tell us more about the minds of these artists than they wanted us to know.

Dalton James may not be Dallas' most versatile actor (at least, not that he's demonstrated so far in seven years of stage work), but he certainly has one of the most distinctive stage presences of any performer around. He can be scary as Satan or sweet as sugarcane, often in the same performance; his energy is all feminine lithe and masculine lethal. It's got to be difficult to find a role that showcases these animal qualities (which perhaps explains why James has usually played violent outsiders with an almost supernatural edge to their pathology), so James writes them himself. But in most of his own shows, the narrator is unabashedly Dalton James or another head on that same hydra, reacting to the intrusion of poignant or sinister strangers.

Auto Neurotic, playing at the Undermain Theatre's basement space, features a rapacious car salesman and a disfigured titty-bar patron on the day he's pulled over and shot by a cop who acts suspiciously like one of the performers in a porn film he'd written the other day. Alone onstage playing any two characters in heated conversation, James handles the dialogue between them gracefully, mostly because he allows a generous flow between them, not chopping the words into staccato exchanges of reply and reaction.

And what words they are. When he deigns to take the mike at a poetry slam, he almost inevitably kicks his competitors' asses with a display that's as much poetry as slam, something of a rarity in those wank venues. In its most effective moments, Auto Neurotic features those reversals of fortune rendered in great golden clusters of words that always seem to surprise you even though, if you've seen James perform before, you know to expect them -- a chortling, backslapping good ol' boy salesman at a dealership becomes a shambling, guttural-voiced troll as he works the sale to the repeated mantric counterpoint "But how much is it?" Meanwhile the cop who shoots Dalton and soils his white work shirt becomes an insecure would-be boyfriend, plaguing him with phone calls in the middle of the show.

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Jimmy Fowler