The Subways of Kansas City

It was a stormy Sunday night and I was out too late, hours later than I meant to be. Nothing had been open for hours, but I’d managed to drink and drug my way into the early morning. I didn’t want to call a taxi and there was no one I could ask for a ride, at least not without angering or embarrassing my family. I’d fallen asleep on a bus or something and didn’t know where I was in the city except that it was far from home. The late hour and the impending storm had all but cleared the streets, so I decided to look underground. Surely there was a subway line that could get me close to where I needed to go. I found a cellar door with a stairwell that led into a station, which was almost pitch black. It looked like a service depot, with hardly any signage except for a dusty electronic ticket booth which I swiped my debit card on and which spit out a ticket from a dot-matrix printer with perforated margins. The ticket cost me $16.17, but the route numbers listed on the ticket were unfamiliar. I looked at a map on the wall, but it appeared to be of an island, and everything was in German. The stops along the route were neighborhoods or municipalities I had never heard of before, including one — possibly the station I was at — called Abaddon. I saw no other passengers, and on the tracks different trains went by without stopping. Box cars, wooden crates, steel rail cars with no engines attached. I walked to the far end of the platform where a man behind a murky bulletproof glass window offered to help. I showed him my ticket, which he collected under the counter and looked at with confusion, shaking his head. He sold me a new ticket for $7 and asked where I needed to go. I felt foolish asking for help since I had never seen a subway station anywhere near my house before, or anywhere in the city for that matter (except of course the Amtrak station downtown, and this was clearly something much older, more surreal and subterranean than our nation’s official subsidized rail service). But when I told him I needed to get to Westwood, he nodded and pointed to a stop on the line that would let me out at Southwest Boulevard, a low-lying urban thoroughfare near the railroad tracks. The train should be down there in just a few minutes, he said, nodding toward the dark end of the platform. Would there be a sign? I asked. No, but you will see the other passengers. A minute later, an engine with a single cattle car attached pulled up, but no one else was on the train or waiting to board. It slowed down long enough for me to jump on, but sped up again before I could make my move. It must have been almost light outside by now, but it was hard to tell since the station did not have any clocks. I began to doubt whether I would ever get home. The other trains and train fragments continued to race past at increasingly faster speeds. A few moments later I was woken up by a particularly loud peal of thunder. The faint smell of soot and axle grease lingered in the morning darkness.

Subscriber, beware

Hello friends. I am not sure how many of you subscribe to this blog by email, but I wanted to warn you that I might be going back and publishing several dozen posts that are currently saved as drafts. If you are an email subscriber, this could clog up your inbox, so feel free to adjust your settings here.

Spring time

Hi friends. I have not posted much in 2015 so I wanted to share a few links to recent projects. My piece, “15 Reasons We Didn’t Respond To Your Email” was included in the summer edition of The Artist Catalogue, based in NYC. Not sure if/when a print version is available, but you can read it in PDF form here. My selection is all the way toward the end but there is a lot of great stuff to look at before you get there.

As part of my inclusion in the Charlotte Street Studio Residency Program, I started an interview series with other artists and writers in the program, called “Pavilionaires” (since most of our studios are in the Town Pavilion building). You can read those here.

And consider coming out on Thursday, May 21 to “Displacement/Thisplacemeant,” a group show curated by Israel Alejandro Garcia Garcia, which opens at Paragraph Gallery (12th st. between Walnut and Main). The opening runs that evening from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will be open into early July. I’ll be featuring an installation of typewriters pedestals featuring writing composed on site.

License to ‘Iliad’

“As God disposes man laughs or weeps” — Sophocles

What’s the last work of art that made you uncomfortable, got you thinking, or maybe even messed you up a little? For me it was probably L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel “The Go-Between,” or Fassbinder’s 1978 film “In A Year of 13 Moons,” the German director’s creative exorcism following the suicide of his partner. Most recently, it was last night’s performance of “An Iliad” at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, a rambling one-man retelling of the Trojan War written by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, directed by Jerry Genochio, and masterfully executed by solo actor Kyle Hatley.

It took more than a few talented people at the Rep to stage such a powerful production, with a plywood set design resembling crashed war ships, innovative musical accompaniment by Raymond Castery (who shares the stage in a non-speaking role), as well as the work of the technicians and producers. But it’s Hatley’s performance that captivates, entertains and terrifies. “Muses!” he bellows toward the back of the stage at the play’s outset, less an invocation than the scream of someone who fears they’ve been forsaken.

10363663_10152636158832155_6622503899298935898_nHatley’s character is a nameless Poet, doomed to retell centuries-old war stories, which he intersperses with witty tangents and contemporary analogies (Achilles’ fury is compared to someone who has been cut off by another driver). The storytelling is spirited and athletic, with the Poet leaping around the set, adjusting his volume and pitch to inhabit different moods, events and characters. I (along with much of the audience, I later learned) assumed he was ad-libbing much of the text until he explained in a post-performance chat that each one of the pauses and stutters were written into the script. Hatley inhabits his character so thoroughly, however, that you never would have known it.

As the war story drags on, an intractable weariness sets into its teller — the guilt of someone who came, saw, conquered and has looked back in disgust ever since. As the Poet details the confrontations and brutalities he witnessed among the Greeks during the sack of Troy, the American audience member can’t help but think of accounts of the My Lai Massacre, Abu Ghraib or any of the other dark moments in American military history.

At one moment late in the play, the Poet cuts short his historical narration to list the names of wars and conflicts throughout history, dating from the ancient world to the present day. While listening to (and anticipating) the names of wars, we realize with mounting horror that all the vivid, bloody, heartbreaking details of the Poet’s story are but a tiny fraction of the apparently unending history of human warfare. Hatley’s unflinching, rapid-fire delivery in this scene marks it as a true crescendo in the performance; the vibrating lights and sustained dissonance of Castery’s musical score creating a scene of almost hallucinatory intensity.

As powerful as this scene was, I was maybe even more impressed by a quieter moment in which the Poet gently pushes one of the hanging glass light fixtures, sending it into an elliptical orbit around him as he continues speaking. I kept expecting it to collide with another prop or the actor himself, but it never did. As the light swings harmlessly around him at increasingly tighter angles, the Poet never once pauses to mark his footing or position on stage, almost as if he’s inhabiting a different plane altogether. It’s the kind of quiet intensity and skillful stage movement that makes Hatley’s performance in “An Iliad” so transcendent.

By the time the narrative reaches the episode of the Trojan Horse, the Poet appears unwilling to continue, either because it wasn’t part of Homer’s poem, or because he’s still too sickened by the memory of that infamous deception. That there won’t be a happy ending to this play seems a foregone inclusion, but I would argue that it’s not entirely devoid of hope. Earlier in the play, while recounting Priam’s pleas for Achilles’ to hand over the body of his slain son, Hector, the Poet describes how Achilles miraculously quiets his rage just as it threatens to reach a boiling point. “How did he do it?” the Poet asks, a question no less critical for remaining unanswered. In a world in which mankind is just a plaything of the gods, does he still have the agency to turn away from war and conflict?

Further examination of the play’s themes would require closer study of the text, which I haven’t yet had time to do. But I did leave the theater with the sense that playwrights Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson have found a way to crack open historical drama and make it something immediate and exciting, using modern language and references to create the same sense of catharsis so integral to ancient Greek theater. I also left wondering how I’d gone so long without seeing a performance by Hatley, surely one of Kansas City (and Chicago’s) finest young talents. If you get a chance to attend one of the four remaining performances this weekend, by all means, don’t miss it.

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Thanks for following along the daily posts these pasts 7 weeks or so. I’m still writing each day and wrapping up a few personal projects, but I want to start out 2015 by following up on some interviews and write-ups of other people’s work. Feel free to send me a message in the meantime. Or just check back in later this month. Happy New Year.

12/31

We went to a Boulevard Brewery tour earlier this afternoon. As usual, watching the bottling line was the most fascinating part. It looks like a bottling plant version of Berlin: Symphony of a City. In our tour group was a heavyset younger guy wearing a red shirt with the Mr. Kool Aid face on it. I saw one dude sneak a phone picture of the guy in the Mr. Kool Aid shirt and show it to his buddy, who snickered. But I didn’t feel bad for the big guy. He seemed more comfortable with himself than the other guys ever would be. He might have been the coolest guy in the room.