Sometimes one is just blown away by a theatre piece. This happened to me last night with CIE I.D.A. and Mark Tompkins last night. Their piece has a rather silly title “Opening Night – A Vaudeville”. Theortically it’s billed as light entertainment and performance art, two of my least favorite genres. Normally performance art is under rehearsed claptrap by imperfect and sloppy technicians of modest charisma who are convinced the world rotates around their navels.
In other words performance art is an unadulterated fiasco which has poisoned the dance world and taken it over, as the less capable outnumber and outvote the properly trained as conteporary dance slips down a long greasy rail into ramp amateurism.
At least that’s what I thought until I saw Tompkins and his French partner Mathieu Grenier perform last night.
Both gentleman are gifted singers and very capable actors. For much of “Opening Night” they sing a cappella together. In the Broadway or musical genre which provided the basic for their performance piece, both would likely be able to find and hold serious roles. These men take their craft seriously. Both are very funny but they do not camp it up with sniggers to the audience as so many of our new “funny” performers do. No Tompkins and Grenier pack their material thick with meaning and absurdity and power through it relentlessy, leaving audiences a bridge deck of questions to solve.
One of their songs includes throwaway lines which are not so throw away – “how life ebbs and flows”. A Vaudeville turned out to be a matter of life and death, the fragility of life.
Tompkins in particular is a chameleon. He starts the show as the mother of the performer in high heels, gold spandex pants and a hair net over rollers. Later he reappears as a chorus dancer, later again as some kind of melancholy Sinatra figure. With his enormous eyes, distinctive nose and pouting mouth, one would think Tompkins would always look like Tompkins but each time he is genuinely different. When he first appears in a suit, he looks just like a later career Peter O’Toole, wittily observing the pageant of life leaving him behind.
Even the props carry additional resonance. The magic box is decorated in primary colours with large text on each side “What is war” or “What is beauty”.
This is not empty noise or self-aggrandizement. Tompkins constantly poses himself the question why:
The most difficult thing about duration, is how to avoid repeating one’s self, how to avoid fabricating a machine to produce performances. Every new work is an occasion to put into play our habits, our certainties and question again our desire – and now, what do we want to say, what is important for us today ?
One of the most powerful numbers is “In Love with the Boy” where Tompkins tells a story about a desultory and tragic love affair with a beautiful Hollywood young actor. Grenier’s interrupts Tompkins with “Boys, boys, boys” before Tompkins forces Grenier to return to his song of lament.
Throughout the show the technical work was great, with a two sided clothers rack doubling as room decoration for the apartment and alternative stage curtains with a simple spin. To create the atmosphere of a techno club, an old guy wanders across the stage strewing glow in the dark cord. This sets a credible stage for a dancing buddha. Little touches like this are what make “Opening Night – A Vaudeville” so delightful and resonant.
It would be great if the Vienna performance artists would visit Tompkin’s and Grenier’s piece to learn how real work in this area is done: with years of training and months of specific practice. Tompkin’s work proves that there is no reason performance should be synonomous with amateurism.
Mark Tompkins is a very impressive singer/songwriter independently of his performance work. His songs are like a happy cross of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and Bryan Ferry.