Antic Beauty: The Art of Greg Giovanni

“I don’t want a slice of life.  I see life all the time.” –Greg Giovanni

Iga no Tsubone and the Tengu, by Yoshitoshi

If you want to see kitchen sink drama, there are places to go for that experience–maybe even Thanksgiving at the home of relatives who air their grievances at family events.  If your taste runs to productions in which some character is identifiably “the conscience of the play,” there are many places to indulge that preference.  And if you need reassurance that the improvisational practices of 1960s Open Theater have persisted into the 21stcentury, again you should not have to search very far.   If, however, you would prefer to enter a labyrinth populated by human and hybrid creatures, lovers and scoundrels, fun-house grotesques, and figures of camp all speaking poetry, you will want to discover playwright Greg Giovanni.

The Jersey Devil (1909)

My first experience of Greg’s work was a film of his play Pine Barrens, as performed in 2006 by Theatre Nohgaku at the North Carolina School of the Arts.  Pine Barrens is a Noh play in English in the category of demon plays and focuses on the Jersey Devil, a cryptid–like the Loch Ness monster or the Yeti–of which there have been hundreds of supposed sightings in the Pine Barrens of South New Jersey and surrounding areas since 1909.  In the play, Greg gives this infamous creature a back story: unwanted by a mother who already had twelve children, a boy was consigned to the Devil.  The fabled monster is an avatar of that disillusioned child.  In Greg’s work, I have since discovered, one can never stop at one’s first reaction, whether to a comic character or to a tragic one.  There is always an unexpected dimension.

St. Matthew’s Fair, one of the plays presented at the NOHspace last fall as part of A Minor Miracle Part 1, is also a Noh play, this time in the third category—a woman play—but despite having been a practitioner of Noh for more than a dozen years, Greg is far from limited to Noh, whether as a performer or as a playwright.   His play The Ixionidae, derived from “The Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs” from Ovid (but also featuring the character of Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream),  is in the form of a Jacobean Masque, and Naked Cocktail is a cabaret show with elements of horror and noir detective fiction.

“I love theatrical conventions.  They’re curtains we can hide behind.”—Greg Giovanni

Greg has been called unconventional, even iconoclastic—he refers to himself as “an old punk” and has been prominent in the Philadelphia underground theater scene for several decades–but he might be more appropriately described as poly-conventional.  He refers jovially to the “Greg Giovanni Book of Theater Cliches” and excels at manipulating and combining conventions to achieve diverse effects.  His lighter work can bring to mind the visual jokes of the Japanese Edo period, like this mitate print in which the raid of the 47 samurai from the play Chushingura is enacted by an unlikely set of characters:

Act Eleven of Chushingura Parodied by Famous Beauties, by Utamaro, The Art Institute of Chicago

Indeed, Greg’s work is often comic but always with an edge of pathos.   In The Dwarfs Are for the Dwarfs, the kyogen play within A Minor Miracle Part 1, the dwarves have comic characteristics but one also feels sorry them, and similarly, audience members who join us at the NOHspace for A Minor Miracle Part 2 will find in Lady Jingly, a kabuki-inspired drama based on Edward Lear’s “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,” as much cause to pity as to laugh.  This is one of the particular pleasures of Greg Giovanni’s work, his leaving so much room for the audience:  a Giovanni play is like a fun house in which each visitor can see something different in the mirrors.

Blemmye, from Cotton Tiberius B v, British Library

“Even in the campiest stuff, there should be some beauty.”—Greg Giovanni

Sexual ambiguity and gender bending have their part in many of Greg’s plays.  The main character in The Ixionidae is a young man compelled to fight to the death with a centaur who was once his lover, and the depleted starlets in Naked Cocktail are intended to be portrayed by men.  Greg himself hosts cabarets in drag and performs Noh in nightclubs in Philadelphia.  (In Noh and in Kabuki, female roles have been played exclusively by men for centuries.)

Hercules Killing the Centaur Nessus, by Giambologna

“Is there room for beauty in art?” I ask Greg, and he replies, “I should hope so…I love beauty that makes me gasp!”  In some of Greg’s plays there is violence, but even there beauty is underscored.  The centaur in The Ixionidae is behaving vilely, carrying off the bride at a wedding, and must be stopped, but first we see through the young man’s eyes how magnificent the centaur is.  And beauty is not just physical:  Greg’s first theatrical love, he says, was Genet’s Our Lady of Flowers, because “The poetry was gorgeous,” and the music of words, even when Greg works with nonsense rhymes, figures heavily into his work.

After beauty our conversation turns to glamour and the fact that “glamour” originally referred to an enchantment cast by fairies.  (Think, if you will, of “pixie dust.”)  A Noh actor impersonating a woman cannot be mistaken for a woman—one can see the actor’s beard, if he has one, below the mask—and a modern performer in drag does not disguise his male voice.  Drag works, Greg tells me, “Because you have the glamour on,” and in Naked Cocktail the predicament of the faded women is precisely that “They are putting the glamour on, and it’s not working anymore.”  Many Noh plays, Greg reminds me, also portray a beauty or vigor that has faded.  But, of course, in the Japanese aesthetic there is beauty in the fading itself.

Sorya!  A Minor Miracle Part 2

A Minor Miracle Part 2 features three works by Greg Giovanni:

Steadfast Memory is based on the story of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” by Hans Christian Andersen.  The play utilizes various elements of Japanese bunraku performance.  There will be puppets, although not of the traditional bunraku variety, and the puppeteers will be visible to the audience.  Greg himself will be the chanter, or tayu, who performs the narration, and ensemble member Sheila Berotti will be the musician.

The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, from Project Gutenberg

Lady Jingly is based on “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,” by Edward Lear, and will be informed by the kabuki style, with ensemble member Sheila Devitt in the role of Lady Jingly and apprentice Nick Ishimaru as the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

The Darling Song Cycle is a series of songs based on characters from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, with lyrics by Greg Giovanni and music by Edward Schocker.  Ensemble member Karen Marek and apprentice Melanie Schauwecker will perform the songs.

Artistic Director Jubilith Moore and Ensemble Member Sara Matsui-Colby will also appear in the production.

Like A Minor Miracle Part 1, this show will be suitable for children, even little ones.  There is no need to have attended Part 1 in order to understand Part 2.

December 2012 update:  In A Minor Cycle, the role of Lady Jingly will be performed by Sheila Berotti.  Sara Matsui-Colby will be the musician in Steadfast Memory.  Sheila Berotti and Lluis Valls will sing in The Darling Song Cycle.

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