I'm old enough to remember when performance art was considered a new form, back when truly hip people spent weekend nights in renovated warehouses watching would-be actors transform traditional theater arts. If I've reached an age at which hipness eludes me, I'm not so old that I can't still appreciate good performance art when I see it. I saw glimmers of it in Theater Numb's relentlessly hip production of Banging the Bishop, which opened last weekend at Paper Heart Gallery.
Subtitled A Latter Day Prophecy, Banging the Bishop is actor/author Dustin Goltz's one-man, low-tech, autobiographical peek at personal transformation. Through its 20 live-action and video vignettes with names such as "Shithead" and "Masturbation: Thy Battle of Good and Evil," Bishop details Goltz's various conversions: from Jew to Latter-day Saint; from homophobe to homosexual; from callow youth to performance artist. Along the way, he develops a talent for storytelling and -- in the truest tradition of performance art -- we get to watch him sharpen and polish that skill while he tells us about his life so far.
Much of that life was spent in a misguided attempt to escape his homosexuality. In part because he's in love with an offstage character who's a Latter-day Saint, the Dusty who tells this story converts from Judaism to Mormonism, reasoning that Mormonism will take him closer to God and further from himself. If he can honor a long litany of Temple covenants, serve a two-year mission, marry a nice Mormon girl and father a houseful of children, he can forget that he's Jewish and gay. But temptation -- in the form of corn dogs, cute missionaries and photographs of Robert Downey Jr. -- proves too much for him. Away on a mission, he lies awake at night, listening for evidence of his elders' nocturnal emissions and learning to loathe himself and his lot in life. He eventually abandons Mormonism in favor of "becoming an asshole," which in this case means taking on a stereotypically reckless life of casual sex and embarrassing leather drag.
There's a resolution of sorts, but it's cluttered by the excess that sinks the second act. I'm still not clear why our hero ends up in angel's wings, singing a dopey pop song at story's end, or what became, in Act Two, of the humorous tone and compelling video work of Bishop's first act.
That first act occasionally soars. In "A Knock at the Door," a half-dozen white-shirted, neck-tied Mormon missionaries form a kickline and sing an amusing ditty about salvation and sins of the flesh. In "Sara Lee," we're told that homosexuality is caused by masturbation, and that Dusty can be cured if he resists various hilarious temptations. And in the program's most amusing video clip, Dusty wanders through a hockey rink, bellowing criticisms into a megaphone ("Attention heterosexual men! Your patriarchy is over!") and eventually provoking mayhem.
The video work is often more entertaining than the live action taking place on stage. In the video portion of "The First Truth," cryptic bits of Dusty's teenage life story ("He watched his teammates undress," "He fell in love with two of his friends") are written on mundane objects -- a record album, a shower stall, a tennis shoe. And the mini-movie musical spoof "A Knock at the Door" bends perspective and captures Goltz's disdain for obsessive religion better than does any of his live tirades on same.
There are technical glitches to iron out -- missed audio cues; sloppy video transitions -- but Goltz would do better to trim his second act and provide a less loopy resolution to this sometimes entertaining life story. Meantime, Banging the Bishop is a rowdy example of a once-fresh form of theater. In any case, you'll never hear the hymn "Come Ye Saved" in quite the same way again.
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