WARNING: This review contains secrets about the show and gives away the ending. Do not read this if you want to experience this performance like a virgin.
Claude Wampler’s “PERFORMANCE (career ender),” a performance art piece at the Gerding Theatre (the old armory), is tricky to write about. Complicating its analysis as “challenging” or “difficult” art, there are surprises that I probably should not describe without “ruining” the show for future possible guests. Under normal circumstances—I was asked by PICA to keep the secret—I would not disclose everything. However, I don’t feel I can fairly review this show as art without talking about it in its entirety. This review will take the form of a narrative.
I arrived 15 minutes early to the 6:30pm first showing. Overhearing that there was a delay due to technical difficulties, I ordered some ravioli at the Armory Café and sat at a table rereading the program notes from the TBA guide. After a hip blather of “isms,” the festival guide informs readers that this piece will play on audiences and audiences’ expectations using visual media and performance. It certainly did that.
The technical difficulties stretched into a 30 minute delay, but the show’s organizers assured us that we’d still be able to make it to Hand2Mouth Theatre’s “Repeat After Me” at 8:30pm, which would also be postponed. At my table, I talked with a woman who said she was from New York and making a documentary about five women choreographers, including Wampler. At 7pm, the organizers told us they’d begin seating at 7:20pm, and that we could not, in fact, see both shows: choose now between Wampler and Hand2Mouth. Having waited that long, I was not about to leave.
At 7:20pm they let us file down the stairs to the Gerding Theatre, where we waited outside the closed doors as a volunteer passed out programs for the show. Instead of a description of the piece or the artist, the program included a transcript of a TV news report about polar bears on melting ice caps and another about a seven-year-old boy who swam from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. The titles of the two transcripts were crossed out and written over with pen: “sinking” and “swimming.” [Wampler had asked that this change be made earlier that day.]
We waited outside the closed doors until 7:50pm, a whole 80 minutes after the show was supposed to start. As I sat downstairs on a cushion, outside the closed door, I had the feeling Wampler was toying with us, purposefully delaying the production to test our patience. In any case, I read my book. Most people stood waiting, or talked quietly to neighbors in the line. A few others had demanded their money back.
When we filed into the small black box theatre, we saw a simple set design: a drum kit, a keyboard, microphones, and a white screen standing from the floor (about the size of two tall people standing together). When the lights dimmed we saw a video projection of a person in a polar bear suit walk around the stage. Following that, the projections of a drummer, keyboardist, and bassist/singer walked on the set and began practicing a new song, “Wildlife come for the fun and games,” an early-sixties-sounding tune with pop harmonies. They played the song again and again, getting in key, refining elements, and writing a conclusion, in addition to the banter between takes. Smoke occasionally billowed from near the drum kit, helping the projection look like a keyboardist was standing at the keyboard, an ethereal holograph. This effect was not successful, however, because the smoke did not blow often enough to maintain the holographic appearance and the projections often fell onto the black floor. The only character that we could see well was the bassist, who was projected onto the standing screen.
So we sat there watching no one, an empty set peopled with illusions, with digital projections. We sat there for maybe 45 minutes watching and listening to the same song repeatedly. The song, although initially catchy, became a bit grating after hearing it so much. And the fly-on-the-wall feeling of watching a band practice a new song soon faded into the ennui of repetition and overuse. The dark theatre beckoned sleep. This is art designed to test endurance.
A girl sitting next to me sucked loudly on a BlowPop throughout the performance. The man in front of her turned to watch her, perhaps signaling that she was disturbing his experience of the show. She rocked in her seat, making deliberately obnoxious sounds with her body and mouth. I thought it was funny, and I thought she must be a part of the show. I wanted a lollipop too. When she began blowing bubbles with the gum, it confirmed my suspicion that she was a plant for the performance. People in Portland don’t do that sort of thing, and Oregonians are usually too non-confrontational to tell someone like her to stop, I thought.
After about 45 minutes of the projections of a band rehearsing, the same actors walked on stage and played a live version of the song, in person. The plants in the audience rocked out, stood, sang along, clapped. Most people just sat and watched. When the three-minute song finished, the lights came up. The show was over. One man said, “Is that it?” I thought, “Do you want more?” I asked the girl next to me for a lollipop and she was nice enough to give me one. On the way out the door, organizers handed out a paper listing an encore performance of the song Sunday night at midnight at the Wonder Ballroom. At the bottom of the paper were the words: “There is more.”
So, is this art? Sure. Is it worth seeing? Probably not. I’ve experienced art before that test audiences’ reactions, where artists want viewers to be aware of their role as viewers, to make choices and think about the limits of propriety. Mostly we reaffirmed that Portlanders are patient, non-confrontational, and eager to see experimental art. This “career ender” may work as a conversation piece, but I think you can get the same idea/analysis from hearing about this show as you can from experiencing it. If you are keen to see Claude Wampler, look for her in the aisles. If you want to see this performance, bring a book or a friend.
If this review feels like I gave away the store, I would direct readers to the initial disclaimer. If it saves you from “ruining” a night waiting in line and missing other shows, then enjoy the other shows. If it excites you to experience “PERFORMANCE (career ender)” for yourself, then great; I’d like to read what you think about the piece on the comments section of this post.
Posted by Dusty Hoesly