Avian Fever: Jack Ferver and Friends Camp Out With SWAN!!!

“I liked how you pinned me down and asked me if I was naughty like Mila Kunis,” Jack Ferver told

“I liked how you pinned me down and asked me if I was naughty like Mila Kunis,” Jack Ferver told The Observer. “I was at an Armory party—I was invited—and I wore this Comme des Garçons piece, which is, like, just lapels, so when you’re wearing a jacket, it looks like you have a suit on. Without a jacket—well, they asked me to put one on. And I was like, ‘This is about art. There’s Picasso on the wall behind me.’ It felt very Mila Kunis.”

Mr. Ferver is to play Ms. Kunis’ hard-partying ballerina role in his new play, SWAN!!! His company, QWAN, has re-appropriated Black Swan (a film directed by a straight man and starring, largely, women) for the stage as a gay fantasia on balletic themes. And Mr. Ferver is a performance artist as committed as any ballerina to mastering his art. (His company previously mounted a similar production based on the British lesbian-seduction drama Notes on a Scandal, titled NOTES!!!) SWAN!!! begins its run March 10 at P.S. 122.

A recent SWAN!!! rehearsal at Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side began with the male cast members demonstrating to the company’s one woman, Jenn Harris, who plays the Natalie Portman role, the “fouetté,” a spin Ms. Portman executes in front of her mirror. Randy Harrison, who plays the Barbara Hershey role and was a star of the Showtime series Queer as Folk, demonstrated a single perfect spin.

“No, in a pirouette you just go around once. You fouetté! Put some fouetté into it,” said Mr. Ferver, spinning his body like a dervish’s. It was agreed that Ms. Harris would spin her finger to indicate the fouetté.

“Remember how I said the bun thing could be a unifying thing?” asked Matthew Wilkas, who plays the Winona Ryder role. Mr. Ferver placed his hands on Mr. Wilkas’ developed pectorals and nodded. “But what about leg warmers?” Mr. Wilkas asked.

“You can do whatever you want!” said Mr. Ferver.

Ms. Harris, a veteran actress who starred in Silence!, another company’s 2005 musical version of Silence of the Lambs, suggested half-shirts akin to the sleeves-only shrugs Ms. Portman wears on film. The performers could wear another shirt underneath.

“I’m not going to wear anything!” shouted Mr. Ferver.

Props were discussed: fake hair buns from the makeup store Ricky’s and fake blood. A pair of ballet shoes was found on the floor of the rehearsal space; the group debated taking them, but decided it wouldn’t be fair to whoever owned them. Ms. Harris would wear silver shoes she already owned; Mr. Ferver would wear black socks.

Mr. Ferver is familiar to many for his work as a regular on the Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy, Amy Sedaris’ early-2000s cult hit. He played a bullied, effeminate teen, a role different only in comic escalation from his real upbringing in Prairie du Sac, Wis., which he described as “Boys Don’t Cry, without the funny parts.”

“Work!” was an expression Mr. Ferver used frequently during rehearsal as an expression of delight. (Other conversational tropes included “Everything!” indicating perfection, and repetition to the point of delirium, as in an scene when Mr. Harrison forced Ms. Harris to eat a cupcake: “Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting, disgusting, disgusting.”)

Mr. Ferver is well known for his more seriously intended performance art. In 2010 at P.S. 122, Mr. Ferver put on Rumble Ghost, an interpretation of the film Poltergeist in which the actor plays both the film’s mother (tormented by ghosts) and himself (same).

His work can divide audiences, and individual critics, against themselves. Claudia La Rocco, writing in The New York Times, said of Mr. Ferver’s 2009 New Museum show A Movie Star Needs a Movie that “Mr. Ferver was born too late” for the personality-driven 1980s performance scene, and added, “Self-love is a grand thing. It can also be limiting, sad, and gross.” Johanna Burton responded in Artforum that Mr. Ferver’s work exists beyond “a proper place and time, since these are categories that camp easily outruns.”

But A Movie Star Needs a Movie’s camp value was bound up in a genuine and painful emotion, the need for recognition. What personal significance there is in the new production—Mr. Ferver said he’d seen Black Swan 12 times, and cried each time—is shrouded behind more amiable, casual humor, with a slightly less tortured spirit. The actors largely remain seated, read stage directions aloud and do not plan to wear tutus.

“When you’re talking about a movie with your friends,” said Mr. Ferver, “you don’t dress up like Mila Kunis.”

As for what constitutes camp, Mr. Ferver pointed to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” “I don’t think we’ve gotten past that essay,” he said. “It conveys the summation.” He added that SWAN!!! offers a particular form of catharsis: “Like a really good laugh with your lover in bed.” Melodrama takes many forms.

The show is a diversion in Mr. Ferver’s busy schedule. He is preparing a collaboration with the sculptor Marc Swanson in Houston and reading Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra for a future piece. He recently lost his SAG health insurance, for failing to book sufficient gigs, after years of onscreen work that included a stint as the pageboy-wearing “Little Lad” in Starburst ads.

“That didn’t feel like a choice to me,” he said. “I felt very driven to make this work come out of me, and I know that sounds hyperbolic, and dramatic, and antique.”

At rehearsal, Ms. Harris noted Mr. Ferver’s black leather high tops were detaching from their soles. “I know, I’ve been really busy,” he said.

SWAN!!!, despite its smaller scale, is not lacking in Mr. Ferver’s old habit of self-love. As his character performed oral sex on Ms. Harris’ during rehearsal, he instructed her to moan “Jack Ferver!” But ideas come from the entire group. Ms. Harris, for instance, has interpolated Ms. Portman’s Oscar speech into the show. And in rehearsal, ideas fouettéd freely. Mr. Ferver said, “Do something manly!” In response, Mr. Wilkas, imitating the dancer and real-life Natalie Portman beau Benjamin Millipied, made his arm movements choppy in an imitation of a toy soldier.

“I swear I have a performance piece in me,” Ms. Harris said, “where I’ll play his ex-girlfriend”—i.e., the ballerina Isabella Boylston, whom Mr. Millipied was reported to have dumped unceremoniously to take up with Ms. Portman—“who lives on the Lower East Side. She’s probably right around here.”

“Just do one called Ex-Girlfriends,” Mr. Ferver said. “It can go from Jennifer Aniston—to that girl.”

“I’m very choreographic,” Mr. Ferver said later. At some moments, Mr. Ferver more resembles Black Swan’s choreographer character, played by Vincent Cassel, than Mila Kunis’ bad-girl private dancer. (Though it must be said that his sly eyebrow-preens and murmured haaays are more Kunis than Ms. Kunis herself.) He is striving, if not for control, then for a sort of collective perfection. The members of QWAN company are all longtime friends, and their rapport is
obvious. Collaborators on Mr. Ferver’s more personal projects are chosen “by intuition. I never audition anyone. I meet people, and I fall in love.”

At one point in the show, Ms. Harris must kiss Christian Coulson, the British actor who plays Mr. Cassel’s role.

“You guys don’t have to make out if you don’t want,”  said Mr. Wilkas. 

“Everything!” said Ms. Harris.

“I didn’t chew gum when we made out Sunday night,” Mr. Ferver told Ms. Harris. “But my breath is always kinda good. That’s what the boys say.”

Everyone in the room popped a piece of gum, though only two were to kiss, and discussed their ages. “I’m 28. Don’t IMDb me,” said Mr. Ferver, who is in his early 30s. Mr. Coulson’s resistance broke down; the kiss was a hit in the room.

At the end of rehearsal, Mr. Ferver was troubled about an obscure reference to Black Swan. “Does that line make sense?” he asked The Observer. We said that it would make sense to anyone who had seen the movie.

Mr. Ferver looked unimpressed. “If they haven’t seen the movie, then fuck them, frankly.”

ddaddario@observer.com :: @DPD_ Avian Fever: Jack Ferver and Friends Camp Out With SWAN!!!