Look around, here at the festival-orgy season, and all is not fun and games. A certain mood of despair has soaked into the work itself—at least at Abrons Arts Center, where American Realness played host to Cynthia Hopkins's **** A Living Documentary. Hopkins is one of downtown's most beloved, a composer-actor-writer with a run of startling, sophisticated works behind her. She always uses herself and her family for material, so over the years her devotees have heard her singsong voice coolly narrating her difficulty accepting her mother's death; her father's eccentricity; and her own inner demons. In A Living Documentary, she exposes the difficulty of making those works, quite literally stating the cost of being a self-producing artist. In this stripped-down show, she tells us where the money came from (a sudden inheritance) and where it went (payroll tax), all while playing a series of characters that comment on the financial absurdities of the artist's life. It's frank and brutal, most painful when Hopkins can see her audience growing numb to her litany of woe. Her moon-bright face lights up and she rails at us—“Only a few more songs! And then you can run off to your next show!”
Miguel Gutierrez hits the same hectoring, plaintive note in ***** Age and Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@&. Here the choreographer admits his total fatigue (“I feel like a ghost in my own life”), while giving us unprecedented insight into the business of being a mid-career, celebrated artist. There's real danger in the way he stages recorded conversations with his agent Ben Pryor (also the creator of Realness) in which he openly complains about Pryor's split focus; there's a genuine discomfort in revealing that Michelle Boulé, his treasured dancer even now stomping herself into a Rumpelstiltskin storm upstage, is paid vanishingly small amounts. Pryor and Boulé play, as it were, themselves, while Gutierrez is so tired that he sits off to the side to play music, while marvelous Sean Donovan plays his avatar, leaping about in fluffy Pierrot tulle.
Very few festival shows seem to touch on larger social problems. The rare exception, Under the Radar's *** Brickman Brando Bubble Room, throws a welter of poor-theater, multimedia strategies at the Spanish eviction crisis, but despite its clearly intoxicating effect on many audience members around me, I thought it was haphazard, a show with a wonderful ending and a very muddled middle. Inevitably, protests about one's own condition have more specificity, and both Gutierrez and Hopkins are laying bare the lives on which festival excitement is predicated. It's enough to make you turn violently inward, to ask if it's right that we participate in this starvation economy. I don't watch football, but I suddenly understand how lifelong gridiron fans, even when confronted with devastating head injuries and exploitative corporate practices, can't abandon the sport. These artists are being honest about how much my pleasure hurts them— yet I don't want them to quit, and I can't stop watching.
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