Ars Gratia Artis

Are you the kind of person who got a bonus from Santa Blankfein, and wants to blow it on a family trip to see a revival of “West Side Story” from seventh row center? Do you like your theater to observe the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action? Do like it when a play is “realistic” or “believable”? I bet you watch a lot of reality TV too. Yeah, that’s right. You heard me. Simple plots, syrupy sentiments, lots of slow-mo’s and major key power chords, that’s what you like, you philistine.

Now, if you prefer the nitty-gritty, avant-garde; if Zach Galifianakis and John Hodgman leave you in stiches; if you live for the excitement of theater so live you can feel the blood, sweat, and tears of the performers sprinkling your hair and getting caught in your mustache,  the FRIGID festival, on till March 7th is for you. Give thanks for New York City, where you can see theater that is truly “state of the art.”

Maxi and Max (Kristin Arnesen and C. T. Gilkey)

Two plays in this year’s festival make this point by deed and word: “Bonne Nuit Poo Poo” by Theater Reverb and “Aristophanes’ The Bohemians” translated (not really) by Gabe Miner.

“Bonne Nuit Poo Poo” is a dystopian, Sci-Fi fantasy loosely patterned on George Miller’s Mad Max (though the title is a reference to Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown). To say this play is loosely based on anything with a coherent narrative is to overstate the case, however. The genius of Theater Reverb is its rejection of organicism in narrative form, and “Bonne Nuit Poo Poo” is consequently a perfect dictionary definition of pastiche. Thrown together in no particular order are references to dystopian Sci-Fi movies, 80s video games, neo-burlesque, “contemporary issues,” Richard Foreman, and a host of other theatrical and dance traditions gleefully plundered from “native” peoples around the world — including the artists themselves. Theater Reverb is not so much Postmodern in the Sam Shepard or Wooster Group way, as it is a pre-Modern Postmodernism of Tristan Tzara and Dada.

Theater Reverb poses a tough game of “guess the influences,” and I pride myself on scoring in the 90th percentile. (The press packet had the answers.) From the many haunting audio references (soundtracks of 2001 A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner) to a distinctly Foremanesque voice over, their work is packed with more deracinated pop-culture references than a two hour Family Guy special. That in itself is fun for the Hypertext Generation, but Arnesen and Gilkey go one better by making the show shiver with oldskool comedy. This influence I attribute to their regular gig at the Floating Kabarette at Galapagos Art Space. (This probably also explains the neo-burlesque number in the middle of the show.) More to the point, their sexually suggestive hijinks and wonderfully expressive faces transcend theater theory and offer what every theatergoer of any level of sophistication really wants: something so funny you almost pee your pants watching it. Seriously — people were screaming with laughter. It was that good.

“The truest poetry is the most feigning.” ~ As You Like It

That much absurdism gets a little heady after a while. So I was happy, in the words of the old song, to get back to life, back to reality with Second Best Bed Production’s production of “Aristophanes’ The Bohemians.” (The Second Best bed is, of course, a reference to Shakespeare, who left his second best bed to his wife in his will. So much for escaping postmodern referentiality!)

The working conceit is that Mr. Miner found a lost work of Aristophanes and translated it. In fact, Miner himself gets up on stage and gives a suitably pseudo-academic talk before the play starts about the history of the manuscript, the philological issues he faced translating it, and Aristophanes’s relevance for today.  I won’t dwell on the fact that the plot of the play is far more like Menander or Plautus than Aristophanes — it would be too pedantic — but I will say that “The Bohemians” really is a treat for anyone (like myself) nerdy enough to enjoy Ancient theater. Unlike “Bonne Nuit Poo Poo”, “The Bohemians” has a plot, and true to the Ancients, a chorus that dispenses wisdom and witty observations on the follies of the principles. Not only that, the chorus also speaks in rhyme — fairly decent rhymes too. The story is about a young man, Mediocrates who wants to be a poet, but doesn’t have any talent. (Mediocrates — get it?) His father Hippocrates, a doctor (get it?), had him educated in the finest schools (Princeton) so that he too could become a wealthy, successful doctor. But Mediocrates was bitten at the end of his senior year by the literary bug. So the young man forgoes medical school and moves to the East Village to live with the New Bohemians — writers, poets, painters and free thinkers — who are probably, like himself, supported by a generous allowance proffered by their parents.

Mr. Miner plays with the traditions (and locations) of ancient comedy: Besides the New York and Princeton references, Mediocrates has a slave, Xanthias, who was purchased in Vermont. Xanthius is the typical wisecracking servant/clown who acts as comedic foil to the miles gloriosus Mediocrates. The concerns of the characters are traditional enough — role reversals, upending social hierarchies, exposing the “falseness” of friends — but it all resonates so well in its contemporary East Village setting, you might be convinced that Aristophanes really did see into the future and anticipate the shallowness of the 21st century New York art scene.

SPOILER ALERT!!! (Here come dee plot.) Hippocrates the father shows up with the intent of taking away Mediocrates’s allowance, spends a night boozing with the chorus, talking trash about art, and the next thing you know dad wants to be a bohemian too. Father decides to become a painter, and he uses his money to get a show at a prestigious SoHo gallery. Mediocrates is upset that the art world seems to run more like a popularity contest than a meritocracy, and complains bitterly that any idiot who can talk theory with the press is revered as a star, even if their art is an incoherent collection of random references to other people’s work. The chorus stands in judgment, and they decide that art is whatever they decide it is, and end their song with an appeal to ars gratia artis — art for art’s sake.

Poor Mediocrates. But that’s what you get for naïvely thinking art is about something as pedestrian and boring as “truth.” Being a 21st century resident of New York City, you’d think he would know by now that all the world is a popularity contest, and all the men and women are merely contestants. Or maybe, all the world is a reality TV show, and all the men and women are merely trying to land a C-list celebrity gig before they need another round of plastic surgery. Either way, all art is artifice, and the bigger, the more audacious the lie (e.g. “based on a true story”), paradoxically the more real it is. And why not? Isn’t this the town where Marcel Duchamp climbed atop the monument in Washington Square Park and declared Greenwich Village an independent nation? And wasn’t Duchamp the genius who realized that if you take a urinal, turn it upside down, name it “Fountain” and get your friends to call it art — it’s art? Works of the imagination die when they are tamed. These works, in their different ways, anatomize the putrefying corpse of quotidian aesthetic experience, and declare it dead so that art can live. Art is dead! Long live art!

So we end where we began. Though on the surface these plays seem in two different classes, in fact they make the same claim — art for art’s sake. Both are entertaining. Both are vital, funny, immediate, and best of all, live. You can’t get much more real than that.

Bonne Nuit Poo Poo and Aristophanes’ The Bohemians

Through March 7, Kraine Theater and Red Room, 85 East Fourth Street, and Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, East Village, (212) 868-4444,; $7 to $16.