The first 40 minutes consisted of artist D’Ette Nogel recapping Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The room was, as host Eric Dadourian put it, 140 degrees. The lineup seemed completely reversed, and performer Eric Andrè failed to materialize as scheduled. Yet Sunday night’s Tragedy Plus Time comedy show attracted a smart, engaged crowd that not only overflowed out the double doors, but recognized stand-up as a legitimate art form.
Highland Park’s four-year-old art collective Public Fiction hosted the evening as part of the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A." biennial. Two concurrent, summer-long installations happening in both locations will ultimately provide content for a printed journal summarizing and commemorating the entire project, explained Public Fiction founder and curator Lauren Mackler.
The live Tragedy Plus Time event served as a counterpoint to the core of the series, in which six artists exhibited one work for two weeks each on a gray stage backed by parted red curtains in the center of a plain white space. Mackler described the setup as “a caricature of a stand-up stage.” Public Fiction’s current décor features two dog cages, removed before the show began, and a massive globe suspended from the ceiling.
“This show is an exhibition that we set up to be immediately recognizable as a stand-up stage with the curtain and the lighting,” added co-curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer. “Almost every artist has made a new work for the context, so they’re contending with this frame of stand-up comedy and making work that fits into that or responds to it in some way or reacts against it. We’re asking them for one work, whether it be an object or a performance or a found object or a sculpture, how that can perform the way a person would, a performer would." Prior works include a globe by Amanda Ross-Ho, Neal Bashor's canvas atop two sawhorses and Darren Bader's jar of "Milk and Honey."
Concerning the specific comics booked on Sunday night, Lehrer-Graiwer said, "We started thinking about the idea of ‘one work’ and how that translates into a singular voice or a really strong perspective.”
Thus the ordered lineup of Maria Bamford, James Adomian, Byron Bowers and Kate Berlant, each of whom commented in their own way on the 100-plus sweating attendees crowded into 35 black folding chairs, leaning against the walls and sitting on the floor behind the stage.
“I love the theater in the round, with an evil globe slowly spinning the wrong way,” observed Adomian. “By the time you get a handle on who I am, I’ve turned to pander to another section of the crowd.” Prodding the globe with the mic stand, as a British officer in a World War II film would, to illustrate “The Germans are hiding here, here, and here,” he unintentionally sent it tumbling down.
Even if the precise intent of the night within the context of Public Fiction's project remained somewhat murky even after repeated explanations, the strength of the talent assembled surmounted the venue aberrations, fostering appreciation from a largely unfamiliar community of discerning new eyes and ears.
Mackler and Lehrer-Graiwer encouraged the comics to simply “do what they do,” rather than cater their material to an arts crowd. Providing no green room, professional lighting cue to signal the completion of set times, or formal introduction for Dadourian — who took the stage and shrugged “There will be a comedy show now!” — Public Fiction proved itself a decidedly non-traditional performance environment...which was more or less the point.
“Art crowds are great, because they understand that not everything is going to be for them,” Bowers said on the sidewalk following his deliberately challenging material on racism, sexism and Hitler. “And they’re accepting of that.”
As if on cue, a woman approached as the audience let out. She told Bowers she enjoyed his set, confessed that she’d never seen live stand-up, and asked what other shows he recommend she experience.
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