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Social Studies 

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SOCIAL STUDIES

Jeff Abell

at N.A.M.E.

November 20 and 21

It's fun to watch Jeff Abell diagram gay-male relationships. Using a black mat board, yellow chalk, and a professorial persona, Abell gets off some good lines. "I realize an argument could be made that the universe is divided into male and female halves," he says as he begins his elaborate design. "But I'll stick with the traditional Western approach and just deal with the universe of men." Then he draws a complex series of bubbles with wild arrows connecting them. The bubbles are cleverly divided into two categories: "splash" (potential boyfriends) and "nonsplash" (buddies--or sisters, as Abell says). The laughter was easy, but curiously there was something lacking.

Abell, a fixture on the local performance scene, is known for work that evokes gay sensibilities, issues, and anger with unusual depth and sensitivity. His material often includes text, movement, music, and references to a variety of sources. So when he put together Social Studies, a retrospective, there was reason to expect good things of his considerable imagination.

But except for the first and last pieces the show seemed to plod along, providing only occasional glimpses of Abell's strengths. It was as though he had temporarily lost track of his own good sense and deliberately chosen to perform some of his weakest or least finished pieces.

The first, "Gay Kinship Revisited," is amusing but lacks the punch of a similar diagramming piece Abell performed that dealt more directly with the angst of contemporary gay life. This one is much more scaled down and cuddly, going for obvious laughs--the "Western approach" remark, for instance--and forsaking opportunities to make other kinds of comments.

But what if Abell had eschewed the Western approach--had taken a risk by attempting to contrast gay-male and lesbian relationships? Without a doubt this would have caused some controversy--there's a weird supportive-but-hands-off attitude about lesbian topics among the current crop of gay-male performance artists in town--but it might have accomplished something this performance obviously needed: forced the material into a more confrontational mode and perhaps shaken some people up a bit.

The last piece, "A Litany of Saints," comes close to doing that. Performed naked (a kind of performance requirement, I suppose, although Abell really made it work this time), the piece features Abell center stage reciting names as he puts on scapulars that represent the individuals or couples whose names he's just called. But this is no mere list. What Abell is doing is placing himself in a historical and personal context that is both courageous and terrifying. His saints include such gay icons as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas but also his friends--dead ones like Peter Tumbelston and very lively ones like Suzi Silver. With each name he also lists a quality or lesson he associates with that person, varying from the profound, such as accepting himself, to the more mundane, such as focusing a camera.

In "Rapid Transit" and "Sunday at the 'Tute with George" Abell seems on the verge of something but doesn't quite get there. "Sunday" in particular has the kind of multilayered approach usually associated with Abell's work, but it simply didn't come off in this performance. Worse, at the end it just fell off the page. Other pieces, like "A Family Album," in which Abell quite literally takes us on an undistinguished tour of his family photographs, never get off the ground.

Joining Abell onstage were Joan Jett Blakk, the drag-queen diva extraordinaire, and Moe Meyer. Blakk took on "Unsafe at Any Speed," which Abell originally wrote for Nana Shineflug and which she performed as Ode to a Lost Rose. I'm a fan of Blakk's, but this particular turn was close to embarrassing. Blakk was in desperate need of direction on this one: she seemed wholly unsure whether to send up the material or play it more soberly. As a result she was all over the place.

Meyer fared a little better, but not much, in "Death in Chicago," an MTV-quick takeoff on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. In an attempt to poke fun at Mann's usual themes--the effects of change on one's inner life, isolation, and death in the midst of life--the piece becomes so dark it's nearly forbidding. The references to Mann are fairly obscure, and most of the audience seemed to be responding to Meyer's Keaton-esque performance instead, but still the piece almost undid the show's more vulnerable and humanistic side.

Unfortunately Social Studies also suffered from circumstances beyond Abell's control. A photo shoot going on in the space above N.A.M.E. caused a nearly unbearable noise. No doubt it contributed to Blakk's inability to focus. And it made it nearly impossible for the audience--constantly being jarred by sudden noises, loud voices, and other intrusions--to surrender to Abell's material. It's to his credit that he never once blinked.

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