Theater review by Helen Shaw
When Tennessee musician, storyteller, painter and bon vivant Dennis Palmer died in 2013, he left behind a following. A gifted presenter and artist in Chattanooga, he kindled a love of weird and outsider art in a generation of Southern minds. Two of these friends and acolytes—Tennessee natives Ben Williams, of Elevator Repair Service, and Brian Cagle, a filmmaker—have created the trippy multimedia production Mind on Heaven as a performative wake for Palmer. There’s booze for the audience and some chat about the South (including a bang-up Confederate-monument moment), as well as archival footage of Palmer and his coterie set to bewitching, improvisatory outer-space rock music.
The show is a boisterous, irreverent invocation of Palmer and his passions, which included banjos made from badger skin, psychedelic paintings of wolves with too many teeth, backwoods spiritualists who know how to name angels, and the dark history of a specific bend in the Chattanooga River. It’s a seemingly bottomless delight, constructed along the weird logic of an internet rabbit hole, with each bit of footage seeming to inspire the next. (“We gotta get these people out of here!” Williams keeps crying, as he and Cagle cue up another video from their trove of Southern avant-garde treasures.)
When you die and your work on earth is left behind, I pray that you get a tribute like this. Imagine your friends carrying on your experiments after you, showing off your best stuff and giggling at your old jokes. Picture them cracking wise about your heart condition (“He had a heart attack onstage and kept playing—as you do”), making documentaries about the artists you loved, enacting silly rituals and dedicating every drop of sweat to your name. It’s not the afterlife most of us will get: Palmer was a rare soul, and Williams and Cagle are, to put it mildly, an unusual pair of recording angels. But doesn’t it sound like heaven?
Axis Theatre (Off-Off Broadway). By Ben Williams and Brian Cagle. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through September 24.
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