JOHN KELLY UNDERNEATH THE SKIN
October 19, 2019
There are times when information is inadvertently sexy. As social media accounts (usually of artists) are censored left and right for displays of graphic content, arguably raunchier imagery is more easily viewable in forums that inform. John Kelly’s Underneath the Skin is just that - a live action Wikipedia article on Samuel Steward.
Steward lived a long life (1909 – 1993) with many subheadings – professor, tattoo artist, pornographer, research assistant. Performed by Kelly, each is touched upon with equal weight in an undynamically chronological order, spoken exclusively in Steward’s words with no critical point of view on him or why a show about him is happening now (save Halloween’s imminence).
Steward was a man of many words, so many that Kelly splits the text between himself, too many voice-overs, and a video projection which takes the form of Star Wars’ opening text crawl. When he speaks, Kelly does what one must trust to be a spot-on impersonation – coldly soft spoken. Meanwhile, images and videos shine from NYU Skirball’s big floating screen, bearing so much content and context that we must forgive it for anachronistically disrupting the mise-en-scène.
The show bills itself as “solo dance-theatre,” yet contains a mere four blips of movement-dependency and three additional bodies. A foursome, one of Steward’s early sexual encounters, is a straightforward sex scene we mustn’t discount the craft required to stage. When covering Steward’s alcoholism, Kelly writhes under a sheet while the others strut about in platform heels, tiny underwear, and animal masks. Nodding to Steward’s narrowly missed tenure with the U.S. Navy, the same men, in uniform, execute a meandering walking pattern while Kelly wistfully wafts about, sans shirt. Sexography returns in accompaniment to Steward’s reminiscing, but could have developed further contemporary partnering’s erotic potential.
These other performers, vaguely credited and similar(ly good-looking) in appearance, are primarily props. When Steward takes up tattooing, one sits silently as his client. Until necessary they are stowed, dressed as university students, in box seats. This performative objectification is the only way the work reflects on its subject – a man who logged his hundreds of hookups in a meticulous “Stud File.”
Aged with makeup, Kelly ends the piece singing a melancholic tune while the big screen rattles through photos of mostly male homosexual kisses. The sentiment is initially lost on me. Steward didn’t die in war, succumb to AIDS, or fall victim to the violence that still plagues the queer community. The tragedy is more personal. Steward romanticized an early demise, yet missed his chance. Having left academia to become the sexual renegade he is lauded for having been, his experiences were ultimately channeled into scientific studies on human sexuality. At least now there is an inadvertently sexy show about it.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews