On a small stage, empty except for some stark white drapes and a table, a sullen man in pasty-white clown makeup sits quietly drinking and smoking. On the floor in front of him are three black-clad artists hovering above overhead projectors, furiously scribbling. Eventually, the sullen man disappears behind the curtain and reappears in full drag, singing a jolly rock ditty called "A Little Salvation." The song is about the "coming of his little pride and joy." Moments later, a baby doll hung on a yo-yo-like umbilical cord drops out of his dress.
Welcome to the Satori Circus, a performance of naive art and ultra-hipness that uses slapstick, spoken word, shadow puppetry and all manner of sonic and visual tricks to weave a story. The show presents the alter ego of Detroit-native Russ Taylor, a character that has been growing and changing for 18 years, always chasing that next horizon. Taking the name from a Buddhist word for the moment of enlightenment and from a love of the absurd, Satori Circus is a singularly uncanny theater-going experience that's a little bit performance art and a little bit rock opera.
After a stint in Indiana as a teacher, Taylor's back in Detroit to stay. And for the first time in more than four years, he's performing at the scene of the crime, 1515 Broadway, the venerable experimental performance space that has hosted him before. This show, Moses: 39, about one man's struggle to confront his past, is a loose biographical tribute to Taylor's late father. It also serves as an exploration of deeper emotional issues, as well as an innovative night of entertainment. The performance is endlessly inventive and playful, with each costume change presenting new eye candy as when Taylor re-emerges dressed as an infant, while the sketchers busily render bottles, pacifiers, bunnies and flowers that float in the ether behind him. Other amusements include Taylor sporting a working light bulb hat, riding a shadow puppet horse. The players perform a song with opposing silhouette profiles like the lovable faces who taught phonetics on The Electric Company, and there's a truly clever toilet gag. The humor and razzle-dazzle stagecraft help soften the dark themes of loneliness, struggle and death, which would otherwise easily overwhelm the production.
There are also some rough spots to smooth out: At times during the first public performance, Taylor was a victim of technology, grappling several times with the iPod that carries the show's soundtrack. He admits he's a bit rusty, "Not doing it for four years man, there were a lot of jitters to get through."
Despite a basic, almost childlike simplicity of the ideas, there is a high degree of difficulty in the execution. The visual tricks have to be kept in synch with the blocking, all while Taylor belts out midtempo indie rock ballads, delivered in high-pitched staccato bursts. And he does some of it in high heels. "The women's shoes are definitely a pain and so is getting into a woman's dress that's a little snug," Taylor laughs. The actor is happy to be back on stage, no matter how high the pumps or how busy the butterflies in his stomach come show time.
He's collaborating now with old friends and new ones. "When I was doing this years ago, there was a group of individuals I had worked with on several shows. I started thinking, 'Holy crap! These are different folks who are unfamiliar with any of my shows whatsoever.' It was new to them and new to me."
Taylor moved back because he missed the fertile creative soil of Detroit, fleeing the Hoosier state's practically nonexistent performance art scene to return to family and friends that offer a network of creative and emotional support. Among those is old pal Tim Suliman, who co-wrote and recorded a lot of the music in Moses, mostly stripped-down, percussion-heavy rock songs that counter the lyrics' complexity. Citing a range of influences from dadaism to the Three Stooges to Buster Keaton to David Bowie, Taylor's biggest influence for this show came from his father.
Though he describes his dad as "a jock," he says his father always encouraged his interest in music, and would often just grab a guitar and start playing. "He didn't have a lick of experience. He would just pick up an instrument and copy something he saw or heard," Taylor says. "I wanted to do something that was very kind of elementary, almost Ramones or garage-like. I wanted it to be very minimal."
In Taylor's world, simple is just another kind of refined that aims to be as beautiful and hopeful as a sky scribbled in with blue markers.
Moses: 39 runs 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through Sept. 23, at 1515 Broadway, Detroit; 313-965-1515.
Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]