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.

Still, James must be extra watchful of tripping over his own feet during his dances with the devil -- Auto Neurotic ends on a bloody note that suggests his trips to the dark side could turn into shopping sprees there. James approaching danger, sniffing it out, whispering its name, is infinitely eerier and more gratifying than watching as he throws himself directly into its speeding path. Onstage deaths are a difficult thing for any performer to pull off with subtlety and self-respect, and because James has already earned a reputation for exorcising -- and exercising -- his demons in public, he's going to have to be vigilant with his words and avoid developing a theatrical Christ complex, an "I'm-dying-for-all-of-our-twisted-thoughts" propensity. He's scary when he's funny and funny when he's scary, and since his pathos is pitch-perfect, humor is his most reliable foundation.

Meanwhile, writer-actor John S. Davies in Beem!, which he performs at the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, achieves nuclear fission in a more left-brain, cleanly scientific way -- avoiding wordplay for a confessional tone that finds three different men taking their turns in the booth, two of them essentially parasites on the larger-than-life autobiographical bluster of the third.

Under the direction of Kimberlyn Crowe of the fledgling Ground Zero Theatre Company, Davies performs his show beneath the gigantic letters B-E-E-M-!, that exclamation point pretty much summing up the braggadocio of Bill Beem, a chef turned Kansas City restaurant manager whose life is at once unremarkable and emblematic of many in his generation. The cocky Beem wants the details of his life -- his enthusiastic but troubled relationships with women, his screw-up college years, his tentative connection to a long-estranged son, his near-enlistment into Vietnam -- to be told as a sort of Defending the Caveman comic harangue. He hires a gay writer with literary leanings named Jimmy Gold and a straight actor who is the writer's longtime collaborator (known to us simply as "the actor") to mythologize his private and professional experiences. Davies alternates onstage among this squabbling trio, and in the process examines with wit, plainspoken clarity, and remorselessness the collaborative process of theater, which is essentially a bastard shuttled between each artist, tweaked and primped and prepped and (hopefully) inoculated against the degrading influence of the other collaborator, the one who doesn't know what the hell he's doing. The oft fine line between the noble impulse toward posterity and the crude lunge for celebrity is also walked here with winning ambivalence.

The biggest weakness of Beem! is the character of Jimmy Gold, the pretentious, prissy gay scribe. Rumor has it that the world contains a few pretentious, prissy gay scribes, and when the actor refers to Gold a couple of times as a "fruit," it seems entirely appropriate to the less flattering, macho-shithead sensibilities he shares with the restaurant manager. But there's something a little cruel about the way Davies denies Gold the rich emotional life that's granted to the other two avowedly heterosexual characters. Reduced to half-serious pining for "Baywatch boys" and attempts during unguarded moments at touching the actor-collaborator, who recoils ("No touching! Remember our agreement!"), Jimmy Gold leaves the gamy aftertaste reminiscent of the hetero-penned pathetic homosexual characters of two decades ago. I'm the last one to endorse that most monstrous of propagandistic tools, "the positive gay role model," but Davies is such a charismatic actor, he uncovers much for us to like amidst the bombast and myopia of Beem and the actor. Why didn't he launch a similar expedition into the soul of Jimmy Gold? Instead, he padlocks the gates with a few stereotypical personality choices and leaves the character to be gawked at by Beem and the actor as if he were some exotic bird. Although it's true the gay writer is ultimately responsible for pulling the most compelling version of the facts out of Beem, that victory is Pyrrhic -- Jimmy Gold gets to write the straight guy's complex and profound life story while his own is left untold by Davies.

But by all means, go see Beem! and Auto Neurotic, flaws and all. Watching two artists as assured and articulate as Davies and James spill their creative seed on stage is a pleasure of contradictions that fertilizes the imagination of the audience with the possibilities of personality. I've been told by different theaters in this city that Dallas isn't a "performance art" kind of town, that as hard as it is to energize people and then strap their butts into a theater seat, it's that much harder at the box office for solo performance pieces. Even the world premiere of Laurie Anderson's Moby Dick -- granted, hinky here and there and overlong from a sense of the artist relying on old tricks, but c'mon, people, it's Laurie Anderson -- sold below expectations. James' show runs for one more weekend only, Davies' for two, and both will have to contend with Hurricane Annie, as the legendary La Sprinkle blows into the MAC to show a retrospective of clips from her porn career (see this week's debut of Sketches). We don't doubt the rumored charm and insight of Ms. Sprinkle, but James and Davies offer a kind of raw power that projects images through words, not a video machine. In the end, it amounts to almost the same thing -- exhibitionist seeks voyeur. But to paraphrase some of Davies' promotional material, he and James don't just drop their drawers for your ticket money -- with these striptease shows, you get art.

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Jimmy Fowler