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Flash Review 1, 1-9: Altogether Out of the Past
John Kelly's 'Skin' Games

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2004 Susan Yung

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NEW YORK -- John Kelly may have been better off born a century earlier than he was, destined to follow a career as a great opera singer, artist, or silent film actor. Instead, we got him, bag of tricks and all, and now he channels for us all of those incarnations. Kelly kicked off Altogether Different 2004 at the Joyce Theater Tuesday. Five performers joined him in "The Skin I'm In," a quasi-retrospective comprising performance, film, and projections. The seamless evening offered up many of the engaging characters Kelly has developed over the past decades, but sadly felt more like a musty curio cabinet than a vibrant showcase.

A mantra of Kelly's led off the program: "If I love something enough, I feel compelled to inhabit it completely." On film or in live performance, Kelly channelled Dagmar Onassis, daughter of Maria Callas; the Mona Lisa; visual artist Egon Schiele; Vander Barbette, cross-dressing trapeze artist; and Baptiste, the mime from the Marcel Carne film "The Children of Paradise." (To read my review of Kelly's expanded show on this character, "The Paradise Project," click here.) He tied together the disparate characters by creating a projected personal ad for each. This unifying ploy, while providing some insight into his creations' psychological profiles, came off as personals do -- a somewhat desperate fiction of one's idealized self. Then again, many of Kelly's characters contain a thread of desperation, an admission of his own obsessions and attempts at inhabiting these other lives when ultimately he wakes up each morning as John Kelly, 21st-century performance artist.

The film segments, by Anthony Chase, best captured the pre-talkie era that Kelly seems most comfortable with. Flickering, chiaroscuroed, burnt sienna images were often accompanied by music recordings just as dirty, coughs and all. (Kelly employs his noteworthy countertenor voice in the finale.) Egon Schiele emerged as the most resonant live performance character, centering around a nude model sketching session for three Schiele figures ("alter-Egons"). The Egons, arranged in a circle, leapt over one another with sharply defined legs and spun, whirling their tablets overhead. In an fine example of low-tech special effects, a couple stuck their heads through a hole in a painting, extending the visual depth of the work even more.

The least successful segment focused on the character of Orpheus. A nightclub in Paris was the setting for the underworld, and its denizens jitterbugged, mugged and posed endlessly, like a high school pageant. The scene offered up one moving moment, when Orpheus asks in French where he can find the Champs d'Elysee. He is greeted with indifferent shrugs, and translates his question into English: "Where can I find the Elysian fields?" In the end, Kelly's work seems at its best on film, where his extensive preparation is visible through the precision of the caricatures, and editing and effects focus the character's context and era concisely. In any case, would-be time traveller Kelly is stuck here in this lifetime; at least he has company in his pantheon of characters, and us to visit with them.

Nina Goldman, Rebecca Jung, John Kelly, Daryl Owens, Christopher Williams, and David Zurak performed; Agnieszka Kunska designed the lighting.

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