Among the many signs that Dallas has finally become a city that not only supports a variety of theater but also fosters its development is that in the past two years we’ve been able to watch the growth of an exciting solo performer—and a queer performance artist to boot. There have been several solo artists in the past 20 years here, but none as prolific as John Michael Colgin. It helps that there are theaters like Nouveau 47 Theatre, where John Michael (as he prefers to be called) is artist-in-residence, assisting with space and resources.
Of course, you hesitate to use the word “growth” too much when talking about his latest show at Fair Park's Magnolia Lounge, John Michael and the Order of the Penix. To get the obvious joke out of the way, and it’s one that John Michael has unabashedly used to promote this show (“Come see my penix”), his, um, his magic wand (read: talent) is growing.
This is his third show, after 2011’s Would You Like Guys With That? A McTolerant One-Man Show and 2012’s The A-Gays: Stillwater, Oklahoma. In John Michael and the Order of the Penix, directed by Matt Tomlanovich, he continues to shape his style. That’s an important process of evolution for any artist, but especially so for a solo performer. He’s clearly becoming more confident and in-your-face, and this piece is his strongest and funniest yet.
In all three shows, John Michael uses autobiographical stories, sometimes snatched up-to-the-minute from his own life, and layers them with political and social context. A-Gays is probably his least successful piece, in that his focus on the title characters actually gives them the power that he is, in part, mocking. John Michael is sharpest when it’s all about him.
There’s not a huge amount of life experience here (John Michael is in his early-to-mid 20s), but he’s smart enough to have figured out that for an artist, everything that happens is something that can be turned into art, as you’ll hear in the audio clip at the bottom of this review. If your life is going to have stories you’ll want to tell the world, why not make the most of them, and even embellish those experiences? This ain’t journalism, after all.
As the title of Order of the Penix suggests, he uses the Harry Potter characters in his metaphors for his various themes, including the idea that young gay men aren’t taking the risk of spreading HIV as seriously as generations before them, especially the one that was devastated by AIDS.
He begins this show with the patrons in the lobby of the Magnolia Lounge, setting up the Harry Potter bit with stories about Dementors and his own Mirror of Erised, whose reflection goes far beyond the surface. The audience then goes into the Margo Jones Theatre (the ghost of the regional theater pioneer, after whom this website is named, is evoked, too), and we listen to what’s been happening in his life in the past few months, in a totally-not-boring way—the kind of candid catch-up you might have with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Only much funnier.
His parents, who, as we know from previous works, are supportive of his being gay and an artist, kicked him out because he was messy. (“Why couldn’t they have kicked me out for being gay, then I could be on The Ellen DeGeneres Show?”) He moved into a friend’s swank pad in the Oak Lawn building Ilume, which he calls “Grindr incarnate,” where he made new friends in the hot tub and worked down the street at Tapelenders, the gay video store that’s one of the oldest businesses on the Cedar Springs strip. Various products sold there, such as "napkin rings," hilariously make their way into the show. (Do not go to this show if you're a prude.)
One way John Michael is becoming bolder in expressing himself is the use of food props. It’s almost become a cliché of performance art that food is somehow involved, and often in messy ways. But he makes them work; this being a very adult-themed show, you can imagine what happens with the melted vanilla ice cream.
It’s vulgar and highly funny, but John Michael isn’t being provocative merely for the sake of shocking. The Harry Potter metaphors go deeper as he describes a lightning-shaped scar on his penix, and many other characters from the J.K. Rowling tales are referenced, including Voldemort and Dumbledore. Oh Hagrid, he laments, “what a loss for the bear community.”
Like the boy wizard, people are occasionally reckless. Hopefully it doesn’t take something like contracting HIV—or, in an unnerving story about driving after drinking, something worse—before lessons are learned.
He’s also becoming more comfortable with being conversational, and the solo/confessional format allows him to cover mistakes and line bobbles easily. You’re not quite sure where and how it’s going to end, and if the tip of John Michael’s Penix isn’t entirely satisfying, it’s good to know it’s not the last word we’ll hear from him.
In fact, he’s already working on another solo show, Like Me, which will be presented at this year’s Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center.
Below is an audio clip that I recorded with John Michael a few weeks before the show opened. As the work has been evolving, you won’t hear it exactly like this in the show, but it gives you an idea of his writing, delivery and, in this case, hard-to-take confessions. It does work back to a point, so stick with it.