Just art: a creative shot in the arm

Fertile Ground: Vertigo's vivid premiere of Rob Handel's "I Want To Destroy You" takes smart and funny aim at academia and the outer limits of art

Life’s not going especially well for Harold, a sort-of-famous artist who’s now teaching grad students at a richer-than-thou private college, and he really likes it, actually, but there are … problems. His ex-wife is out of the picture somewhere – California, it sounds like – and his teenage daughter, Micki, comes to visit, prodding him for more of a relationship than he seems willing to commit to. His roof’s got a bad leak, and he’s unfortunately seriously ticked off the roofer, Andy. He’s up for tenure, but his friend and mentor Bob is in a hospital, dying, and the school dean, a crafty-smooth politico named Stephanie (everyone’s on a chummy first-name basis around here, even when they’re decidedly not chums), seems strangely unsympathetic: downright threatening, you might say. Then there’s Mark, the weirdo grad student, who comes to class to give a presentation on a conceptual piece, and in the process starts waving a handgun around. Which very much freaks out the other students, earnest Ilich and leafy Leaf, and throws a serious scare into Harold, which is both completely understandable and a tad ironic, because, after all, the work that made Harold famous and a prize catch for the richer-than-thou college in the first place was the performance piece where he had himself shot. With a rifle. What goes around, as they say, comes around. And on the other end of things, it looks scary.

Monkey see, monkey do: Orr and Epstein as student and teacher. Photo: Gary Norman

Monkey see, monkey do: Orr and Epstein as student and teacher. Photo: Gary Norman

So goes Theatre Vertigo’s I Want To Destroy You, the premiere production of a play by Rob Handel that is smart and funny and argumentative in a very good way and a little sprawling and by turns deeply satiric and emotionally telling, and all in all a fascinating, compellingly turned show. It’s also Vertigo’s entry in the Fertile Ground festival of new works, and to understand it deeply it’s good to know some of the background that Handel, who is head of the dramatic writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and so knows some of this material intimately, uses. Which means, first of all, knowing that harried Harold is a stand-in for, or at least inspired by, a guy named Chris Burden.

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And that creates something of a conundrum for me, because I’ve spent decades purposely averting my attention from Burden. I ignore him the way some people pointedly ignore Justin Bieber or Donald Trump or Dinesh D’Sousa or Noam Chomsky or any member of the Kardashian clan, hoping against hope that they’ll just go away.

Burden was a pioneer in the subgenre of conceptualism that’s known as body art, although to keep you from confusing it with pretty images of henna patterns or butterfly tattoos on a unicorn’s ankle, it might be better to call it mutilation art. He didn’t give the art world a shot in the arm. He let the art world shoot him in the arm, à la Harold, and he rode the bullet to something like fame. In his 1971 performance piece Shoot, he had an assistant shoot him with a .22 rifle from about 15 feet away. Surprise: It hurt. In his 1974 piece Trans-fixed, he spread himself across the back end of a Volkswagen Beetle and had himself nailed to the car. As Margalit Fox wrote in her obituary for him last May in the New York Times (he died at 69, from melanoma), in pursuit of his art he “had himself shot, pierced, starved, crucified, electrocuted, cut by glass, kicked down stairs, locked up, dropped from heights and nearly drowned.”

By comparison, Marina Abramović, the current queen of performance art and the model for yet another character in the play, the intense visiting artist Flamia, is a modest self-mutilator: in her 1973 piece Rhythm 10, she jabbed repeatedly between her splayed-out fingers with a series of knives, and, when she inevitably missed and stabbed a finger, tape-recorded the sounds of her pain and played them back, trying to replicate the stabs and yelps. The following year, in Rhythm 2, she took a medication onstage that caused her body to shake violently and uncontrollably, then took another medication designed to calm down schizophrenic patients who have violent outbursts.

Abramović, in my personal shorthand, is only a narcissist. Burden was a messianic narcissist, and what exasperated me even more than what he did to himself was the way that much of the art world gasped and applauded and declared his end-game bravado deeply significant, as if he’d somehow managed a major breakthrough in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. People: he had himself shot. He had himself crucified. His reckless art wasn’t some sort of grand intellectual metaphor about contemporary life. It was real, actual self-mutilation, and, besides its shallow sensationalism, an affront to anyone whose bodies are deformed or don’t work properly because of genetics or illness or accident. Bodies, as anyone whose own doesn’t fully function knows all too well, are precious, and are not to be willfully maimed or destroyed. Even – perhaps especially – in the name of art.

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So of course it follows that I should hate I Want To Destroy You. Except I don’t. On the contrary, I find it one of the freshest and most invigorating new plays I’ve seen in ages, a constantly stimulating blend of satire and emotional insight that is exactly the sort of thing I hope to come out of the Fertile Ground festival – a payoff for the vision of the thing. When Vertigo moved into the tiny Shoebox Theatre I worried that the little space could limit its imagination. In fact, it seems to have invigorated the company, which has been forced to sharpen what it does, and has emerged with a boldly expressionistic approach to the dictates of intimacy. Matthew B. Zrebski, who directs I Want To Destroy You, understands that crucial creative conflict and lets the thing go crisply but full-tilt.

At the core of everything is Duffy Epstein’s performance as Harold, which is everything you could ask for. Epstein’s a very funny actor, with interesting edges. He’s genial and likable and caustic and exasperated, the sort of performer who can make you feel the contradictions of fumbling through contemporary civilized life, and he possesses something just a little extra: a latent manic streak, an innate outsider-ism, a sense that lurking inside his ordinary clothes is just enough anarchistic don’t-give-a-damn to upset the apple cart. Yet he also makes Harold intensely humane, and in this play the only character you feel has a truly broad understanding of what’s going on around him (although Micki has possibilities, and trusty Bob is keenly insightful as he’s checking out). Harold is the one you naturally want to attach your emotions to. Or to Epstein, or Burden, or the odd amalgam of their three-in-one. In playwright Handel’s imagined universe, he’s the vital discontent within Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the one who forces himself to live, somehow, with the culture’s innate contradictions, even if you suspect they’re going to give him ulcers.

Epstein, Nordman, Orr: a little tension in the classroom. Photo: Gary Norman

Epstein, Nordman, Orr: a little tension in the classroom. Photo: Gary Norman

Handel has a sharp eye for the shape and foibles of the contemporary art world, and that knowledge infuses I Want To Destroy You: Harold’s artistic hero, it turns out, is Joseph Beuys, and that means something. But the play is at least as much about the politics and possibilities and little corruptions of the academic world, and much of its acerbic and sometimes hilarious undertone comes from his dank observations about college life, which seem to run somewhere between affectionate broad comedy and knowing disgust. The tower is not ivory.

Zrebski has cast well, and if not everyone has equal opportunities, everyone fleshes out the script admirably. The young actor Jacob Orr is a fine foil as isolated and troubled Mark, the gun-toting art student, by turns frightening and painfully, heart-breakingly vulnerable. Shawna Norman and R. David Wyllie fill out the class well as Leaf and Ilich, affectionate, mostly comic student types. Holly Wigmore is sweet and sassy and sensible as Micki; sometimes you get the sense that she’s the truer adult in this daughter-father relationship. Jessica Zodrow’s brief flamboyant turn as Flamia, the Abramović stand-in, is fittingly exotic and double-edged in her love/hate for Harold. As roofer Andy, the play’s blue-collar voice, Nathan Crosby has a nice everyman edge: the character seems a bit schematic, inserted to reveal the disconnection of the worlds of art and academia with the “real” world of ordinary folks, but Crosby plays it well. If there’s anyone else close to a caricature in the play, it’s the ruthless schemer-with-a-smile arts dean, Stephanie, who is played with beaming patronization and oneupsmanship by Sharon Mann. At her opposite, in a fine and utterly convincing brief performance, is Grant Byington’s Bob, the senior prof whose incisive understanding of the dangers of academia to the creative spirit seems to be dying along with him.

The intriguing thing for me about Harold, and Epstein’s performance of him, is that they force me to rethink the possibilities of Burden. Handel imagines him as a lion in autumn, a man who’s matured, broadened his thinking, and come to a basically decent and humane approach to the world around him, even if, like all of us, in many ways he’s still pretty screwed up. He seems bemused by his own youthful self, proud of his early work yet also separated from it, having moved on. At one point Harold gives an eloquent, if not entirely convincing, defense of his early shock art as a thing of purity and beauty, unrepeatable but necessary in its moment. Now, he’d really rather just be a good teacher and a good father. And that makes me wonder, is my antipathy toward Burden a matter of moral disagreement, or an inability to step inside his shoes and truly see the world as he saw it, or an intense dislike for the foolishness of celebrity culture and its corrosive, if unintended, consequences, or some jumbled-up mess of the three? Was he trapped by his celebrity, and struggling to get out from under it? Was he just another guy, trying to stumble through?

There are differences between the real-life person and the character Handel creates, though it’s difficult, not having known Burden or paid much attention to his post-performance art career, to know how far apart the man and his fictional doppelganger are. In real life, Burden and his wife, the sculptor Nancy Rubins, resigned their faculty positions at U.C.L.A. in protest after the university refused to discipline a student who played Russian roulette in his classroom as part of a performance. Burden felt threatened, and demanded, without satisfaction, that the university protect him from the student. The parallels are in the play, but things don’t work out precisely the same. Harold, moving toward the middle, finds an accommodation, and life rolls on. Still: nutty Mark and fierce Flamia, his most devoted acolytes, are still out there, ticking away. One way or another, the chickens do come home to roost.

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The world premiere of I Want To Destroy You continues through February 20 at Theatre Vertigo, in the Shoebox Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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