Attention New Yorkers of a certain age nostalgic for the 1980s avant-garde East Village arts scene. It’s time to rejoice, for a supreme survivor is back to evoke those glory days, and beyond.
I’m speaking of none other than the master of mélange John Kelly, the multitalented, genderqueer artist who in 1981 began performing in downtown dives like the Pyramid Club and later made his way to Carnegie Hall, belting out arias in fractured falsetto and high drag.
The introspective impresario has returned to his East Village roots, at the storied La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, to mount his latest piece, “Time No Line.” The multimedia work, based on his meticulous journals, is at once a wistful and penetrating survey of his career spanning four decades, though, as the title suggests, defiantly not in chronological order.
“Well, the past is not linear,” he says, sitting at a little desk, his androgynous face lined with worldliness. “In retrospect, it’s a patchwork of emotional triggers — how hard has it been to go back into these journals. I see my missteps — and I see my experience, whether I like it or not.”
In classic Kelly fashion, this solo show integrates readings, anecdotes, dance, song, live drawing (in chalk on the floor), and projected images and video to bring his journal entries to life. If you look closely, the screen is actually comprised of white pages that appear to be taken directly from his journals, giving the projected images a textured, fragmented feel.
Not that these are ordinary journals. The pages are bursting with screeds, scribbles, lists, doodles, diagrams, sketches, and cartoons, many of them worthy of framing. In fact, a selection of Kelly’s journal transcriptions and memorial portraits is on view at Howl! Happening from February 28 through March 25 (6 East First Street; howlarts.org/event/john-kelly-sideways-into-the-shadows).
The gifted performer, sometimes in drag, covers an astounding amount of territory in just 70 intermission-less minutes. Predictably, he traces key milestones in his career — a flirtation with the American Ballet Theatre, a stint drawing self-portraits at Parsons, trapeze and tightrope lessons, and inspiration drawn from the infamous gay den of sin, the Anvil. Not to mention the birth of his Dagmar Onassis character (the fictional love child of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis) and his character studies of Egon Schiele and Joni Mitchell.
All of this is framed by the AIDS pandemic, which decimated so many gay men of his generation, including innumerable fellow artists. Kelly reveals that an HIV diagnosis in 1989 left him energized, not despondent. This just two months before his friend Keith Haring died of AIDS-related KS lesions on his lungs.
Despite a predilection for drag, it would be a mistake to label his character portrayals as camp. They are too reverential, too sophisticated. Throughout the show, Kelly makes costume changes in full view, so we can witness the process of transformation.
Dressed in a sheer red scarf, his plaintive rendition of the French transgender anthem from the 1970s, “What Makes a Man a Man,” is vintage Kelly.
His signature embodiment of Joni Mitchell was both a highlight and a letdown. He chose the relatively obscure song “The Last Time I Saw Richard” when I was hoping for a crowd favorite like “Woodstock.” If anyone is stardust, if anyone is golden, it is the ethereal, timeless, consummate creator John Kelly.
TIME NO LINE | La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Through Mar. 11: Thu. – Sat. at 7 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. | $25 at lamama.org or 212-352-3101 | 70 mins., no intermission