Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dynasty Handbag

New York-based performance artist Dynasty Handbag is the "solo music/video/voiceover/comitragic performance vehicle created and executed by Jibz Cameron," according to She visited Austin recently to perform a benefit evening for the local queer DIY performance space CampCamp, and also offered a one-night show at the Vortex Theatre in East Austin. Word-of-mouth primed me for her performance—Dynasty Handbag got raves at the “WOW and Now” cabaret staged at Joe’s Pub during the Performance Studies International Conference at New York University in November 2007.

I can see why. In the small café that serves as a casual lobby off the Vortex's theatre, Dynasty set up a tiny platform stage under a few even tinier lights and proceeded to seduce the audience with her casual, quirky charm. In a talk after the short show, she positioned herself within overlapping music and performance practices, describing her work with various bands as well as her training in theatre at ACT in San Francisco.

The multiplicity of styles and talents shines in her work. She performed an interactive conversation with her own recorded voice, played from a laptop perched beside an amp just off the small stage, selecting numbers from a playlist on the screen, assisted only by a friend who reached out to adjust the volume during each piece. Dynasty reminded me all at once of a singer, a stand-up comic, a performance artist, and a dancer, as her mobile face and flexible body seemed to register each nuance of emotion that crossed through her.

Physically, Dynasty Handbag performed like a hybrid of Charlie Chaplin and Gumby. Her “costumes” were outrageous arrays of clothing layered like non-sequiturs—a leotard over sweat pants, a cut off t-shirt worn over a long-sleeve shirt. She seemed dressed for mobility, if not for speed; the queer (meaning “odd”) look of her outfits enabled the herky-jerky movement of her arms and legs, as thoughts and questions and answers hurtled across her body in spastic, but supremely controlled, finally dancerly style.

In many ways, Dynasty mostly plays reaction shots, responding physically to her taped voice as it prompts her movement through each piece. But what for a less talented, less confident performer would look like mugging, in Dynasty’s rendition seemed like a symphony of considered, meaningful, even moving response. For instance, I’ve never noticed the complex of emotions available in a raised eyebrow. Dynasty lets us see differently things we think we've seen before.

The evening’s highlight was her interaction with a series of discarded plastic and paper bags that littered the small platform. As each bag pestered her to be noticed, Dynasty approached them warily, with resignation, and let herself be commanded by their needs and desires. Her face and her body registered the humiliations of succumbing to instructions delivered by inanimate objects, yet her generosity with her attention became strangely heartwarming.

Far from cynical, her irony seemed shy rather than coy, hopeful rather than debased. As she pet one of the rumbled plastic bags, pleasuring it with the nearly sexual abandon it demanded, her face moved into and out of confused expressions of embarrassment and willingness, as her body just went with the flow. As each bag called to her in turn, Dynasty acknowledged the publicness of her interactions with these objects; she knows we’re watching, and goes through her motions with a wink and a nod to how ridiculous and yet necessary her exchanges seem to be. When the last bag—an upright, rather imperious brown paper one with handles—called her attention, she sighed, “I’m tired of talking to bags.” The line resonated as loudly and deeply (if much more comically) as Willie Loman setting down his sales cases and telling his wife he’s tired of traveling.

In another number, Dynasty sat in a chair, playing an artist deciding the content of her next piece. The number was a tour-de-force of affectionate self-satire, as the stream-of-conscious monologue spooled off the laptop while she sat responding with her face and body, pen poised over an open notebook turned to a blank page (this after she borrowed the pen from someone in the audience).

Dynasty’s talent, perhaps, lies in how fresh her reactions seem, how persuasive she is in convincing us that she’s never heard these thoughts before (and neither have we). At the same time, she crafts a knowing, intimate connection between herself and her spectators, bringing us into this wry, slightly askew world where your own voice gets literalized (auralized?) outside your head, and you judge each choice of action, and respond to what you hear yourself telling yourself. It’s the super-ego come to life in a very public place, jousting with the body-as-id, as the ego just tries to hold it together and proceed, knowing that its contradictory, ambivalent, and finally deeply humane actions are under gentle (if pre-disposed to be generous) scrutiny.

Dynasty Handbag’s appearance might have been mediated through apparatus of her laptop and that amp, but the intimacy she creates carries a lovely current of liveness. We hear along with her the outrageous demands of things, the cacophony of others’ judgments and needs, the absurdity of trying to negotiate questions and comments that press at us from everywhere and nowhere.

In the process, she predisposes us to identify with her disidentifications, with her cautious acquiescence and delicious resistance to the nameless forces that be, which sound an awful lot like, well, Dynasty Handbag. Far from solipsistic, the performance externalizes a conversation we can recognize and to which we can relate: the ambivalences and doubts that prompt our hopeful, finally graceful actions, and the generosity with which we all go about believing in the possibilities of our interconnected lives.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Season Five on The L Word continues to be its best since the series began. Producer Ilene Chaiken and friends have returned to the fast and funny satirical premise that made the lesbian dramedy so appealing in the first place, and the characters have settled into their quirks and peccadilloes with an easy charm. The actors seem more comfortable with each episode, plying their trade with a wink and a nod to spectators as if we’re all now in on The L Word's best joke: the fantastic hubris that lets it aspire to be a cable tv show about “lesbian lives and loves.”

That The L Word has always in some ways been a parody of itself is no longer an open secret, but now overtly delivered with delicious self-mockery through Jenny’s vanity film project, Les Girls. With the once tortured, traumatized nouveau-lesbian cutter now fully in bloom as dyke diva, Jenny muddles her way through directing her script, adapted from her eponymous novel. That Les Girls is itself a not-so-thinly-veiled, not-so-fictionalized version of stories told in the first season of The L Word makes the references even more fun. The show’s winking allusions to its own excesses make it even easier to forgive its interim few seasons of labored, unconvincing dramaturgy.

In last night’s episode (#6, see for clips and on-line viewings), Jenny and company fly to Vancouver to scout locations. Jenny quickly denounces the city as a poor excuse for Los Angeles, and demands she be allowed to shoot in California. Since The L Word itself shoots in Vancouver, the producers poke fun at spectators’ early objections to the unrealistic Canadian locations that substitute for the city in which the show takes place. Les Girls moves its shoot to the very LA street on which Bette and Tina and Jenny and Shane live, mixing up the layers of reference and reality as The L Word's characters meet the Les Girls actors who play them.

Jenny’s moment coaching the women playing “Bev” and the film’s version of Tina through their first sex scene is a hysterical parody of the straight actors of The L Word rumored to have been tutored in the fine points of lesbian sex by Chaiken and her crew. Jenny gives the two embarrassed, befuddled actors an elaborate set of sexual instructions, to which they respond with terrified, awkward ineptitude. Frustrated, Jenny barks to her no-longer-so-abject assistant, Adele (Malaya Rivera Drew), that they need to hire a lesbian sex expert to teach the actors a thing or two, an obvious reference to The L Word employing Susie “Sexpert” Bright to instruct its performers while the first season was being shot.

Creating narrative stand-ins for the regular cast of characters lets the audience see how far Jennifer Beals, Laurel Holloman, and the rest of the cast have come with their roles. And the utterly satisfying consummation of Bette and Tina’s re-simmering passion proved them once again the most believable, compelling couple on the show. Beals and Holloman’s affection for each other seems real, and their comfort with one another’s bodies makes their sex scenes convincingly erotic. When Bette, in the throes of desire, tells Tina that she’s missed her, the audience can only agree. After three seasons of watching other characters' much less expert sexual fumbling, it’s good to have Bette and Tina back in action (and especially nice to watch Tina take control of their moves).

Even Kate Moennig seems to be loosening up as Shane (could it be those newly buff abs she’s now sporting?). While her hair still looks like a disaster (but then, what do I know?), her three-way with the SheBar girls and its aftermath has given her new spunk, as she stands up to defend The Planet and poor Kit’s reputation. Elizabeth Keener (Catherine’s look-alike sister) plays a mean jealous lover, and the conflict over lesbian capitalism is both funny and relevant, as the two establishments fight for the dyke dollar.

The ensemble of actors playing the core group of friends--Holloman, Moennig, Pam Grier, and Leisha Hailey--show their affection for each other with real conviction, their repartée and teasing now finely honed, warm, and easy. Hailey might have lost Rose Rollins’s Tasha to Alice’s dubious decision to out a famous African American football star, but Alice’s budding career as a talking head (now being prepared to audition for The L Word's version of The View, with sarcastic references to Alice taking Rosie O’Donnell’s “lesbian” place) promises more subtle political commentary from the always vivacious character. Alice might bear the burden of the show’s queer politics, but she handles her role as spokeswoman pretty well (except for her inexplicably naïve and ignorant jibes at transman Max, whose sole purpose these days seems to be videotaping Alice and figuring out what’s up with the suspicious, covertly ambitious Adele).

Cybil Shepard continues her run as Phyllis, the out Chancellor of “California University” where Bette serves as the art school dean. The plot’s recent controversy over “extreme” art proves that Bette’s become more conservative in her very responsible administrative position. Bette’s erstwhile lover, artist Jodi, now sings the anthem for free expression in the arts, defending her student’s right to put a gun to his head as part of his performance. Bette worries about donors and the school’s board of directors, a far cry from the Bette who mounted “Provocations” at the LA museum where she was the curator (in the far more politically progressive Season One).

If Phyllis’s lack of concern over the controversy isn’t believable, her new-found lesbian identity continues to serve The L Word as a source of both pedagogy and parody. Phyllis’s freshly introduced daughter, Molly (played by Shepard’s actual daughter, Clementine Ford), promises new sexual tensions and possibilities for the irrepressible Shane (whose recent vow of celibacy didn’t even last an episode).

Given that network television has been a wasteland these last few months while the writers’ strike ensured that the best scribes in the business will get the income they deserve, it’s been a pleasure to follow The L Word's more accomplished scripts, well-paced directing, musically evocative scores (fabulous to hear Joan Armitrading last night), and capable, relaxed, committed performances. Since the future of Friday Night Lights (my other favorite) seems in doubt post-strike, at least we’ve got the girl crew in Vancouver—rather—“LA” to entertain us. How nice that some of the best television available these days is by and about lesbians.

Indulging happily,
The Feminist Spectator