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Flash Review, 11-13: Escapism
Children of Cocteau: John Kelly Presents Dargelos

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2008 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- In a word, John Kelly, seen October 19 at the Spiegel Tent as his latest alter ego Dargelos in "The Escape Artist," was mellifluous. What else can be said that would mean more, would confirm his artistry, or describe the absolute joy of experiencing the aural pleasure of the Kelly voice in action? Done more like a staged reading than a cabaret act, this humble presentation, thanks to Kelly's dedication to his audience and his art, played as a grand coming out party, the professional debut of "Dargelos," as channeled by Kelly. The unveiling was modest, enchanting, generous, and genuine; he eased us into the world of this new man. It felt like we had been invited into Kelly's living room, the intimate setting of the main floor of the Spiegel Tent reinforcing that atmosphere.

Throughout the evening, in piecemeal fashion, Kelly explained that Dargelos is the brother of Dagmar Onassis, who herself was the love child of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. Callas and Onassis really did have a baby boy who died a few days after his birth. The conceit is that the child was really a girl, Dagmar, who was spirited away to some secret European hideaway to avoid a scandal. It's not clear who the father of Dargelos is, but it's safe to assume that it is not Onassis. This adds yet another page to the romantic life of Maria Callas. We learn that Dargelos is an obsession of Jean Cocteau, equal parts school bully, street hustler, altar boy, tragic beauty and narcissistic hero. Kelly describes Dargelos as "a starred male dragged through some very dark times, an artist escaped, a weathered sage returned solid." That said, where and how Dagmar and Jean connect Kelly does not explain but it is safe to say that this young man appears to be on a collision course with a torrid rendezvous.

The song list was our only clue to the mysterious nature of the Dargelos persona. Each ballad, presented in a matter-of-fact style, was chosen for effect; they flowed simply and logically from one to the next. It was like Kelly was patiently displaying a family photo album complete with touching annotations to help us decipher all the nuances of the character. The program of cover songs, by the Incredible String Band, Joni Mitchell, Charles Aznavour, Dudley Saunders, John Barry, Ricky Ian Gordon, Donovan, John Barry, Bertoldt Brecht/Hanns Eisner and Brecht/Kurt Weill were well chosen to give insight, reveal, and substantiate the man who is the Dargelos persona.

As songwriter, Kelly contributed two poignant compositions. The first, an homage to Dagmar, was written in a style which paid respect to and quoted from the style of Joni Mitchell while remaining distinctly original to Kelly. The second song, done in the unique Kelly style of urban, country, folk, silly-boy was a ditty-like blues song that laughs at the absurdities of choosing to make art over choosing to make money. The homage to Dagmar was delivered in the most exquisite falsetto, each tone crisp, clear, and powerful, with a melancholia that infused the listener with empathy and regret for the path not taken. The effect was spine tingling and near overwhelming. The ditty was a down-home country twanged tongue-in-cheek revelation about the vicissitudes of life and life choices.

The crowd for the evening was an appreciative group, many from the recognizable John Kelly fan club but just as many evidently newbies, with a significant sprinkle of performance artist youngsters eager to hear the master. Live performance has its pitfalls, but Kelly continually avoids the sand traps and, incredible as it may seem considering his prodigious output to date, continues to perfect his art by breaking new ground. He ceaselessly reinvents, mellows, matures, and intensifies his already formidable instrument with every new endeavor.

My only complaint about the evening was the persistent and annoying intrusion of sounds and noises from the adjacent performance space, "The Deluxe Bar." These disturbing reverberations regularly pierced the quieter moments of the Kelly performance with deep bass booms, thuds, and clatter. I would be wary of attending another Spiegel Tent event of a serious nature due to this egregious noise pollution.

Kelly shared the evening with singer-songwriter Carol Lipnik, with Dread Scott on piano.

Disclosure: In 1997, I produced John Kelly's "Paved Paradise -- an Homage" at Dance Theater Workshop for a limited two-week engagement.

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