This combination of parody and seriousness reflects the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of initiating and carrying out a totally collective action— an era in which the most serious ventures are masked in the ambiguous interplay between art and its necessary negation, and in which the essential voyages of discovery have been undertaken by such astonishingly incapable people.
—"Détournement as Negation and Prelude," from Internationale Situationniste #3, 1959
It’s the chicken you see first. Piled in a bucket atop the ticket table right inside the door carved into the iron grate that fronts the Collapsable Hole, Radiohole’s performance space on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg. A great big bucket of chicken.
"Hi. Wanna beer?" Mike Mikos, Radiohole’s cheerfully attentive intern, dispenses programs spotted with chicken grease while scooping out complimentary Budweisers from Radiohole’s trademark big blue beer tub. Life must be good for this Brooklyn-based, avant-garde quartet. Last time it was Schlitz. Mikos doesn’t offer any of the chicken. It will soon become clear why.
Radiohole’s current offering, Radiohole Is Still My Name, marks the performance group’s return to the local scene after a year’s absence. Subtitled a "Proyecto en Proceso," which translates loosely into "a work in progress," Name is Radiohole’s latest installment in barely-contained total theatrical anarchy, with group members Erin Douglass, Eric Dyer and Maggie Hoffman collaborating this time out with performance artist Joe Silovsky. Once again, this exuberant foursome drags out various disparate factions of Western culture pop and other whatnots and gleefully plunges them all together into a kind of performance Cuisinart before your very eyes.
"If Radiohole goes to sleep, the rest of the world is in trouble," Douglass warns the Bud-quaffing audience at one point, cinched up in her frontier town, dance-hall floozy corset. And who’s to argue. Kicked off by a frenetic, flapping display of bare ass (Hoffman’s), bare tits (Douglass’) and Dyer’s wildly-waving bare dick, Name careens madly about its expressionistic saloon set, an inspired amalgam of Western frontier iconography, as if Robert Wiene had designed Sergio Leone. Chalked semblances of saguaro cacti lurk behind classic swinging saloon doors flanking a vaudeville-era curtain. A motorized tumbleweed whirrs about upstage. A sign for "Norton’s Frickin’ Disco Chicken" glows an appropriately discordant lavender. Before they are done, Radiohole’s saloon will be littered with playing cards and gambling money, and also beer, spit, a giant spray-painted happy face, and big, glistening chunks of half-chewed chicken. Lots of chicken.
Radiohole’s oeuvre has always been the enigmatic synthesis of disparate cultural references, detritus and, sometimes— literally— people’s trash, all beaten into submission by the group’s peculiar brand of violent theatrical anarchy. Unmistakably similar if perhaps more self-referential than previous Radiohole expeditions such as 2002’s None of it: More or Less Hudson’s Bay, Again or the deliciously inscrutable Wurst (Take it and Eat it!) (I mean…take it and keep it) from early last year, Name nonetheless has its own discrete core: the vaunted and mystical 1960s.
Drawing in no small part upon the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone— especially his classic trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), all featuring Clint Eastwood’s laconically iconic Man With No Name— Radiohole Is Still My Name draws some straight-ahead yuks from its easy lampooning of gunslingers, saloon girls, and good card games gone bad.
But then, as Douglass and Hoffman lie sprawled in violent death after an insult-tossing, loogie-launching reenactment of GB&U’s climactic graveyard shootout, the group’s self-proclaimed "intellectual grist" Eric Dyer, in bowler hat and red longjohn undershirt, hurtles suddenly down a Guy Debord spur line, ruminating upon the French Situationist who rose to prominence during the Paris student strikes of 1968.
As Dyer polls members of the brew-buzzed audience on the preferred pronunciation of "petit bourgeoisie," Douglass, Silovsky and Hoffman lounge behind him, ravenously devouring an entire chicken plus several quarts of Budweiser in a remarkable display of both gymnastic masticating and just plain old down-home, belch-ripping guzzling. During the span of Dyer’s relatively brief discourse, Hoffman alone powers down nearly a quart of brew, some of which she later spits back in Douglass’ face.
And then there’s Tom Jones. No, not the Tony Richardson film adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel, although that film was from, yes, the 1960s and featured some pretty gnarly noshing of its own. Radiohole digs deeper than that. They burrow down, way down, and don’t come back up until they’ve got a hold of that ’60s icon of sweaty, skintight polyester, the Vegas kitsch crooner himself. Arguably the highlight of this work-in-progress’ first weekend was the moment this gorging, belching quartet glided smoothly into a leg-kicking, chicken-scarfing chorus line revue paced to the overwrought throbbing of Jones’ 1968 torch wailer, "Delilah."
"Absolutely," says Dyer, when asked if the brawling, combative nature of Radiohole performances is a reflection of the working relationship of the group. "We fight about everything," adds Douglass. Formed in 1998, the group’s contentious style has proved cohesive as well, with the core of the group remaining consistently intact. In fact, they seem to feed on the disharmony.
"We really look for the chaos in both rehearsal and performance," Douglass continues. "We’re always trying for that one unexpected moment where something really great spontaneously explodes onstage."
Radiohole has been developing and rehearsing Name since last September, when they convened to read transcripts of Debord’s 1959 film, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time.
And while citing influences such as Richard Foreman and particularly the Wooster Group, Radiohole is focused upon forging its own unique theatrical identity rather than revisiting territory already mapped out by others.
"The Wooster Group was an inspiration and an influence," notes Dyer, who spent two years as an Associate with the fabled downtown avant-garde troupe. "For example, the musicality of their work and to some extent, their performance style."
So what, exactly, is Radiohole’s performance style?
"Theater is generally made by
specialists," Dyer says by way of explanation. "Specialists in acting, specialists in directing, technical specialists of various sorts, administrators, etc. We choose to shun the whole idea of the specialist. We fold all of that into the performance. We don’t break down into hierarchy and specialization."
This egalitarian vibe that is Radiohole onstage extends beyond the group’s actual performance into a type of omniscient, all-inclusive groove. Instead of audience and performers drifting away into the night after the show, fragmented and separate, what had been "the show" morphs seamlessly into what becomes "the party," and the mariachi-cum-Handel soundtrack of the performance transforms into a disco-to-country party mix.
Instead of vanishing into the sanctuary of their dressing rooms, Dyer, Douglass, Hoffman and Silovsky mingle with their audience for a kind of instant feedback and what seems to be an ongoing dialogue with regular audience members. The music grows steadily louder. Someone commandeers the controls to the motorized tumbleweed and sends it careening about the set like some renegade Roomba run amok.
And everyone, it seems, is eating chicken. Lots of chicken. For Radiohole, the audience is part of the show.
"It’s hard not to be aware of the audience in our space," Dyer observes. "You sort of have to be. Why pretend they are not there? People in the audience are alive, responding to events, acting and reacting while they experience the work. So are we. We can share that."
Radiohole Is Still My Name (Proyecto en Proceso), by Radiohole, $10, 9p.m.
Wed–Sat January 21–31st,
Saturdays February 7, 14, 21
Fri, February 27.
Saturday February 28 = special benefit and party ($25)
At the Collapsable Hole,
146 Metropolitan Ave. at Berry St., Williamsburg. For more info:
718-388-2251 or www.radiohole.com
Brook Stowe is a playwright and the editor of the annual New York Theater Review.