Queer and present

Keith Hennessy: 20 years in, still rattling everyone's cages with theatrically pungent works
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From the forthcoming "Crotch ... "

DANCE In the middle of Keith Hennessy's "A Queer 20th Anniversary" performances — which end this weekend with the Bay Area premiere of his 2008 Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal, or trauma ...) — the reprise of his two-part How to Die (2006) nearly filled Dance Mission Theatre. At the end of the evening, he asked for donations to help him defray a looming $5,000 deficit. Just about everyone gave.

Perhaps Hennessy didn't mind begging. Stepping out of a persona and addressing the audience directly, after all, is part of his artistic make-up. Still, I winced. After two decades of investigating theater as a locus for truth-seeking, of innovating formal structures, of honing performance skills and creating work that is serious and thought-provoking, an artist deserves better.

Although Hennessy has a sizable, loyal audience, primarily in the queer community, his theatrically pungent work rattles everyone's cage; injustice, poverty, violence, and hypocrisy set him off. Broadway it ain't. Compelling — and sometimes uncomfortable — dance theater it is. You don't have to agree with Hennessy's perspective on sex's redemptive power to appreciate the richness of his references, the skill with which he translates ideas to the stage, and the force of his commitment to what he does.

Hennessy is a stripper, not because he often performs in the nude, but because he tears off the blinders that protect him and us from what we don't want to see. The question, of course, is what remains. Vulnerability for sure. But perhaps Hennessy is also a romantic, hoping to find something pure underneath all the garbage we accumulate.

In Homeless USA, part one of How to Die, he makes us look at the homeless in front of our noses. In part two, American Tweaker, he conjures up the drug-addled sexual abandon of the early 1980s. Even on second viewing, neither work was easy to watch. There is something of the fleshy rawness of a Francis Bacon canvas about them. But Hennessy also pushes theatrical verisimilitude to the point of absurdity, which allows an audience to step back from the emotional onslaught.

Homeless USA was derived from research on homeless men — many of them veterans — who commit suicide by being decapitated by passing trains. Hennessy started out gently, with Jules Beckman as a pugnacious sidekick, but turned up the heat by "masturbating" on the train tracks, and stumbling over the list of reasons to commit suicide. While "drowning" himself in a bucket, he became his own lighting designer. Attached to a string threaded through his nose, he recalled a delicate Petrouchka. In these scenes, Hennessy's intensity -- he often approaches a kind of religious fervor in his performances — was riveting.

At the core of the manic American Tweaker, a train-wreck evocation of a sex-obsessed disco and bathhouse scene, was a prolonged, extremely violent (though simulated) scene of anal intercourse. It ended with Hennessy whimpering on the floor. Addressing the audience, he confessed that at this point "I usually don't know what to say." Neither did I. The final healing ritual had Hennessy hanging upside down, Seth Eisen as an apparition from A Thousand and One Nights, and Beckman's wondrous music. Rituals necessitate a community of believers. I wish I could have been one of them.

In Crotch, Hennessy draws props from his performance theory studies and (as the piece's full title suggests) the work of the late German artist and philosopher Joseph Beuys. Among the most clearly referential are a tub of lard and a piece of felt: Beuys claimed after his Luftwaffe plane crashed on the Crimean Front in 1944, Tatar tribes people saved his life by wrapping him in lard and felt. The way Hennessy uses the lard is simultaneously freaky and profound.

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