by John Stoehr
Laurie Anderson performs again tonight at 9 p.m. It's the last of three Charleston shows for the pioneering performance artist. Last night, her husband Lou Reed showed up for a tune. Perhaps he'll do it again tonight. At any rate, we saw the show, called Homeland, on Wednesday and like a couple of other performances at this year's Spoleto Festival, it had the feeling of being a little late in the game.
Taylor Mac and The Burial at Thebes have political overtones. While one makes fun of the absurdities of the past eight Bush years (airport security, etc.), the other underscores the tragic elements of those years (the social and political dangers of nationalism and xenophobia). In neither of these performances, however, is politics essential to what they are. They were an art that has much more to offer.
For instance, Mac, the transgressive, cross-dressing fool, is a master shape-shifter, able to manipulate and charm any kind of audience. Though some of his material has lost its frisson (i.e., jokes about "unattended bags"), he elicited an amazing range of emotions — from mirth to sadness to pity to respect.
On the other hand, Thebes, which was performed by the Nottingham Playhouse, was a spartan and ingenious production that spoke to timeless themes of concern to all of us — death, duty, honor, family, and religion. King Creon himself is an oblique allusion to George Bush, but one could completely ignore that allusion. Creon is a tragic figure that has stood on his own since Sophocles wrote Antigone.
The same can't be said of Anderson's Homeland. It depends entirely on politics and current events that aren't as current as they used to be. It feels stuck in time.
Homeland is perhaps best understood as a spoken-word political satire with songs and music serving as interludes to pithy and didactic musings on war, corporate corruption, terrorism, torture, American consumerism, American imperialism, global warming, bureaucracy, Evangelicals, and on and on.
Some musings were funny. Anderson joked about malpractice insurance, underwear advertising, and about the English language: how you don't have to memorize the sex of every object in the room. Some of these musings were striking in their imagery: "My eyes are black like nail heads popping out of the wood waiting for the hammer." But most felt stale, like reading a newspaper from a couple of years ago.
The music simply wasn't strong enough to overcome the weakness of the message and the cuteness of the poetry. If Anderson had delivered Homeland in 2005 or 2006, it would have felt more powerful, as if she were saying something that badly needed saying. As it is, it's already been said, many times over, and our collective attention is now elsewhere. Despite its avant-garde antecedents, Homeland, which is Anderson's first Spoleto gig since 1999, seemed a bit passé.
"Are you young enough to have enjoyed that?" asked an older man outside Memminger Auditorium after the show. He and his friend were baby boomers. The remark implied that Homeland was an outgrowth of a kind of artsy-fartsy fare that the kids like so much these days. But it wasn't that at all. Homeland sounds to my ears like a product of a creative mind forged in the counterculture of the 1960s.
Anderson attempts to satirize American imperialism by singing a happy song about a young girl joining the armed forces. It's a kid's war, Anderson sings, but business is good. "We keep calling them up" is the tuneful refrain. The language suggests that she equates joining the army with the draft. The song feels like yet another attempt by a baby boomer to apply the values of her generation to the problems of mine. Problem is, those values don't fit. So it's not just Homeland that seems stuck in time.
Anderson does, too.