Let us not assume that Frances Stark actually makes a hobby of seducing Italian men in their 20s over the internet, though that was the topic of her Performa commission “Put a Song in Your Thing,” which she presented on Friday night at Abrons Arts Center.
Let’s instead refer to the character Ms. Stark portrays, a frustrated artist with a love of language that seems diametrically opposed to her desire to make an opera. The character wears two outfits, a giant black dress shaped like a rotary telephone and a flesh-toned body suit. She regularly disrobes, and re-robes, aided by assistants who carefully pass the rotary disk over her head as they’re taking it off of her. Her on-stage appearances were brief, though—most of the action happened via recreated instant message conversations. These were projected with white words on a black background, onto a transparent screen that slid down over the proscenium.
The show began with a projected computer avatar wearing a fig-leaf bikini, who in a robotic voice told an old joke about a depressed man detailing his woes for a doctor. The doctor recommends that he see the great clown Pagliacci, who happens to be in town. “But doctor,” the man sobs. “I am Pagliacci.” Then the avatar shrugged.
Not long after that a documentary-style video played, featuring Ms. Stark’s character, in a telephone suit (see the image above), making a presentation in a near-empty opera house about her frustration with language, which is so extreme that even her presentation is a disaster. You get the impression that this actually happened and the video has been edited down so that it’s primarily comprised of the bombing character’s “ums” and “uhs.”
“Words,” she sighs once, before resuming—“uh, uh, um, uh.
“There’s something about David Foster Wallace-” “um” “uh.”
How the character seduces the men isn’t made explicit. There may be video involved. The audience only ever saw long-distance pillow talk. The Italians’ facility with English varied and she had to explain to one what she means when she says she wants to be “stabbed.” According to the transcript, another watches her dress afterwards. She speaks about a shared love of 8½, with a third. “It is so about masturbation,” he types. She agrees.
The screen on which the words are projected remains down and we see a video of the Major Lazer hype man Skerrit Bwoy perform his signature hype move, in which he climbs a ladder on a dance floor and throws himself between a pair of spread eagle legs below. Skerrit Bwoy is the public face of Major Lazer, a band actually comprised of the DJs Switch and Diplo, and the character becomes obsessed with the soundtrack of his hyperbolic simulated sex dances. We learn this as an impossibly tall ladder is placed on the stage and Skerrit Bwoy, still behind the word screen and in shadow, pauses halfway up it to read the character’s love letter to him on his phone.
All this led to the character bathing in sound at the end, music from a giant speaker that was onstage the entire time. It boomed with a bass you could feel in your clothes from the audience. The character wore the telephone costume and disrobed to sit in front of the word screen with her laptop. She then made a Powerpoint for a show very much like the one we’d just seen, her butt bobbing in the air as she typed the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” which was playing in the background. The needle scratched and a Major Lazer dubstep began as Skerrit Bwoy appeared. It was the only time the audience saw him without obscurity, and his electric yellow Mohawk seemed to light up with his eyes. To the delight of Ms. Stark’s character, he began to simulate sex with her, humping her from behind. Then they gleefully rolled around together onstage, heads in each others’ crotches. He pulled apart from her, to lie on the floor just below the stage with his legs spread. She leapt at him, and it was over.