"Cabaret." "Burlesque." These are words that can be used to describe the work of performance artist Joseph Keckler. But so can the words "poet" and "storyteller." Mr. Keckler is gifted with that rare ability to pick and choose among multiple talents and media to weave compelling stories that transcend these limiting qualifiers. In the two pieces he performs as part of Joseph Keckler & Friends at Dixon Place, he’s a singer, writer, narrator and all-around performance artist who does what is needed, when it’s needed, and with great aplomb, to deliver pieces filled with humor and pathos. With slight twists of inflection or accent, through narration and song, off-stage and on, and with a liberal and poetic facility with language, he brings a gentle humanity to "Cat Lady," a smart, taut narrative piece.
The subject of "Cat Lady" is Mr. Keckler’s eccentric mother—a former artist who, since her house burned down in 1983, taking all her work with it—has abandoned professional art and now conducts a daily drama of sorts, using her cats as sounding boards. She is their protector, best friend and even psychoanalyst: "Mrs. Gummidge has yet to reconcile herself to other cats. Thus she remains in self imposed exile here in the pantry." Cat Lady’s sister-in-law, Carol, is equally eccentric. Irreparably obsessive about her husband’s philandering, she adopts a Southern accent when discussing her upcoming divorce "trah-uhl," entreating Cat Lady to come to it and "testifah!"
"Cat Lady" is essentially a short story brought to vivid animation by Mr. Keckler who, walking slowly around a living room--at times sitting in an easy chair or pouring himself a cup of coffee--sings his mother’s nutty songs, mimics her baby talk and illustrates her fanatical feline affection: “She spoke as if she simultaneously wanted to be Cubby, to make out with him, and eat him."
Embedded in Mr. Keckler’s work is the theme of alienation, of having been beaten down in the world but struggling to bounce back in some inscrutable way—to regain one’s life or free oneself from a kind of prison. He does this poignantly, describing his mother’s trapped soul in “Cat Lady," and comically, in his opening piece, “Has Been In Michigan," where, inventively utilizing a four-way split projection screen and his own piano skills, he plays characters such as a former boxer turned big rig driver from Detroit and a schmaltzy vaudeville performer—all once semi-prominent, but now coming to terms with the fact that they are, well, has-beens in Michigan. Post-video, Keckler appears and brings it all to life by portraying another such character, slurring through the words of Janis Joplin’s rendition of "Me and Bobbie McGee," repeatedly mispronouncing McGee.
Joseph Keckler is an artist in the truest sense of the word. Working in a boggling array of genres, including opera, Keckler has experimented and found what works. Each Thursday through the remainder of January, he’ll be performing paired with another artist who will perform between his pieces.
The night I attended, Mr. Keckler was teamed up with La John Joseph, a performance artist from Liverpool whose motifs of alienation and marginalization as a man/woman complement Keckler’s themes. Joseph’s piece feels more like a work in progress, in contrast to the crisp tightness of Keckler’s work. Joseph occasionally pauses mid-performance to get an object from backstage and curiously place it on a table, builds questionable interruptions into his piece, or stops to lip synch thematically related songs by Kraftwerk, James and Depeche Mode. Powerful and moving at times, Joseph appears to be finding his way toward an accomplished stand-alone piece.
This polishing process is what experimental theater is all about. Dixon Place, a theater laboratory at 258 Bowery, will be moving to larger digs on Chrystie Street soon. Catch an installment of Joseph Keckler & Friends now at its current location, in a small but comfortable salon-like setting that is perfect for these ambitious and intimate works.