Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Vice (with Mary Kay)" at the Tank on 45th St, NYC: Cakeface eats out

A small pink plastic globe of a television monitor above an empty stage greets the audience as it makes its way into the theater space on the evening of May 8. Hanging from a chain above the corner of the playing space closest to the right side front row seats, it flickers silent black and white images of the vegetarian cartoon hero Popeye the sailor, and his carnivorous foil, the aptly named hamburger-mooching Wimpy.
Suddenly we find ourselves confronted by the performance trio Cakeface, standing shoulder to shoulder across the front of the stage and sporting bike shorts and black bras under sheer neon tunics (costumes by performer Elle Chyun). They each hold white sheets of paper from which they begin to read, with the self-conscious aplomb of third graders, a text that might have been written by second graders. The audience begins to giggle. Then the readers stuff their scripts into their mouths and begin to chew.
(l to r:) Amanda Szeglowski, Jeso O’Neill and Elle Chyun of Cakeface*
Thus begins Vice (with Mary Kate), a 28 minute opus that has been, according to a program note, “inspired by grating encounters with ‘preachy vegans,’ [which] probes that which makes us feel ‘badass.’” Wimpy, the note intimates, should receive script credit as a “motivational badass,” and the source of the piece’s “vocal samplings.” 
“The work delves into the behaviors we adopt despite knowledge of their negative implications, including but not limited to ruthless carnivorous indulgences.”  Hence, it would seem, the paper chewing.
The remainder of the behavior depicted onstage consists of passages of spoken text, cheeky interaction and fierce full out dancing in the tiny space. Intermittent recorded music by DJ Tony Conquerrah, Matmos, Figurine, and The Knife sets off or accompanies these episodes. The costumes change, adding brightly colored shrugs here, day-glow fanny packs there, from which emerge prayer shawls to be worn around the performers necks.

Of these elements, the dancing makes by far the strongest positive impression. In fact, the work's most cogent moments of manifestation come in the form of a rap recording calling out the hypocrisy of holier-than-thou vegetarians to which the trio adds its muscular hip hop and modern dance flavored movement.
Each of the character/performers (Jeso O’Neill and Amanda Szeglowski, alongside Chun) has her moments of strong presence, with the bemused-looking Chun the most consistently appealing. Cakeface, fond of written declamations, announces its mission in the program as “commercial abstract art.” Under the heading “vision,” the collective states that it “wants to push abstract art out of its incestuous circle and into the mainstream. Tactical collaborations, socially powered work and pop art are the ingredients of the cakeface brand.”

Except perhaps for the music, and maybe the fanny packs and Mary Kay reference, I find little of pop art in evidence in Vice beyond the Popeye animations. Were the work to be viewed as an extended sketch on Saturday Night Live it might easily be seen as of better than average quality. Certainly the intimate audience reacted to its absurdist humor as any reasonably excitable SNL crowd might have.
But if Cakeface wants to go the distance in realizing its larger ambitions it might do better to dig deeper into the culture it seeks to satirize or critique and wear a bit more of its heart on its gossamer sleeve.  For real human warmth and engagement, and a dialogue with popular culture it need look no further than its own post-performance champagne and cupcake theater lobby reception for a start.

*photos by Florence Baratay

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