That’s over the line. Too soon? Hey, you can’t say that.
It’s not entirely uncommon for the limits of humor to be tested. It doesn’t take much effort to parse over the recent history of the entertainment world or even one’s own personal life to find multiple examples of when someone pushed the boundaries of acceptable comedy. A joke about a deceased person, an ironic or satirical attempt at joking about race or gender, or just something classically grotesque. There’s a line.
Scholars have spent considerable time debating the existence of this line, or frame how it’s defined, what its limits are and under what circumstances it can be subverted or moved.
Performance artist Tim Johnson makes his own exploration of the subject in his newest piece One: Man. Show., part of Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival, and directed by Tina Parker.
In the show, Johnson approaches the difficult and delicate subject of his battle with HIV with a postmodern mix of humor, pop culture references, non sequiturs and flat out absurdism, which, considering the subject matter, seems to be the best way to address something so serious and manage to keep it mostly light.
In fact, after opening in the guise of a drugged pop star singing the The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” Johnson tells the audience his road map and assures the group that this show won’t be filled with existential angst. And he’s telling the truth, for the most part.
Johnson, with the onstage help of Martha Harms, plays out a series of seemingly unrelated scenes that misdirect from the larger theme. It’s only in the subtext that these faint connections are glimpsed and provide a reference point for the random nature of Johnson’s thought process. From drugged-out pop stars to the deck of the Starship Enterprise and to the Oprah Winfrey Show, the series of comic frames belie the author’s true intentions, which is his way of making the more dramatic root of the piece palatable and accessible.
Of course, there are interludes in which Johnson employs multimedia technology to be more direct and truthful about his story and circumstance. These are typically played out via prerecorded video and serve as the only critical note for an otherwise engaging piece.
At one point Johnson, while speaking into a camera on stage that is projected on a screen that makes up the backdrop of the stage, remarks that “we are connected.” That connection is between himself and the audience, but it brings to light a peculiar choice in the show.
Every realistic bit, every moment of reality, whether it’s autobiographical background or struggles with disease, is delivered to the audience via video. The bits that are actually acted out and directed toward the audience are the intertextual hodgepodge of cultural acts and references. But the truly personal, soul-bearing moments are almost always mediated via a projected image, which arguable hinders the audience’s connection with the audience and his story.
In fact, as impressive as the multimedia nature of the piece is, with a long list of collaborators and contributors who helped make the piece as visually engaging and immersive as it is, there isn’t a clear reason for the choices of when to do something live and when to mediate it.
Of course, since there is a clear distinction between what is and isn’t mediated, it’s possible —probable—that this is an intentional choice by Johnson. But a curious choice nonetheless.
Overall, the effect isn’t lost and Johnson’s creative approach to autobiographical performance is more refreshing than head-scratching. It’s certainly got an odd vibe to it, as the best way to describe it is postmodern, which many will argue has a very contested definition. But it is. And it’s good.
Johnson has a unique ability to all at once be a showman and yet make us feel like he’s just a guy having a conversation with someone about his life. His wild and inventive imagination provides a vivid palette of experience and traces a topsy-turvy journey that’s so surreal at times it almost feels like that’s exactly how it happened. At least in his mind. And what an exciting glimpse into a mind and an untenable situation—one that many will never be forced to deal with—it is.
◊ To see more about the New Works Festival mainstage production, Octavio Solis' Se Llama Cristina, click here.
◊ For more about the staged readings and PUP Fest at the New Works Festival, click here.