“I believe our job as artists is to tell the truth,” Patrick Scully said as he began the Deeper Shadows Cabaret, an evening of short works mostly inspired by German culture pre- and post-Holocaust, but mostly aimed at present-day America. But, he went on to say, it takes some work to figure out what truth needs to be told.
Amen to that. And I’d add it’s just as important to figure out how to tell the truth. (I’m dying to put quotation marks around that—the “truth”—but I’ll save the deconstruction for another day.) Like the rest of us, artists have political opinions. But it’s not the most effective tactic for artists to come out with opinions blazing. Let’s consider an example from literature: When Hamlet wants to “speak truth to power,” he sets up a play in which his murderous uncle, the king, can watch a reenactment of the murder he’s committed. Hamlet’s strategy works: the king feels genuine horror at what he’s done. But the play works by dramatization, not rhetoric. If Hamlet had begun with criticism of the king, how could he even have gotten the king to sit down for the play, and how could he have reached the king’s defended heart? Rhetoric arms; drama disarms.
I doubt any right-wingers were in the audience at Patrick’s Cabaret. Why would they have bothered to come to a show that wears its liberal politics so securely on its sleeve? And if the right-wingers weren’t there, was there any “power” to “speak truth” to? Preaching to the choir is reassuring, no doubt, but it’s not effective.
But this isn’t merely a matter of what works best. When the artist knows in advance what he or she means to say, the art becomes contracted and flat. Such art is easy for audiences to “get,” but once you’ve gotten it there’s nothing more. Contrast this with the rich mystery of work that explores rather than presents, that questions rather than states. I’d rank Venus DeMars’s lo-fi, yet dramatic, work in this latter category. For “Ritual,” DeMars and some helpers carefully arranged twenty-four tall candlesticks onstage, erected a pair of twig wings, and laid out what sounded like barbed wire but turned out to be fuses. All this was buildup to the moment in which the naked DeMars knelt in front of the wings, now burning—an enigmatic but powerful image—but the work was also the painstaking preparation, was also DeMars holding together a black satin robe, flicking a lighter, and carefully lighting each taper. This mix of the prosaic and the magical holds more interest than the flatter, more predetermined pieces littering the evening.
Even some of these others would have been more compelling had they not been framed in a deadly combination of earnest politics and less-than-earnest production quality. Technical difficulties happen; lo-fi can be charming. But disregard for the audience’s welfare is another matter. Two hours and change without an intermission, with speeches and unrelated works larded in: Deeper Shadows wore out my patience.
Too bad. This was a good idea, and featured some strong performers; Dreamland Faces played some lively music. But the politics drowned the cabaret.