In all my years of performance-going, I’ve never been all that worried about seeing a piece; but in preparation for The Jester of Tonga at PS 122, I couldn’t sleep the night before. Ideas of matter and anti-matter danced about in my already fully stocked cranium: can two jesters be in a confined space at once? Is that even legal? If disaster were to occur, would it be explosive, like a combustion sort of thing, or an Einsteinian collapse of space and time, a black hole epicentering in the East Village? Oh, the possibilities.
And this has nothing to do with my personal feelings toward creator-performer Joe Silovsky. Quite the contrary. I’ve been a huge fan of his collaborations with Radiohole, and I even experienced the pleasure and awe of working with the handyman of experimental performance when we were both on board with The Builders Association. I’m simply a neurotic person who reads way too much pop science and thinks way too much.
Luckily, no such event occurred last night (although it would have been cool—you totally wanted it, right?): the fire exits were pointed out, cell phones were turned off, and The Jester of Tonga went off without a hitch.
See, I could use only two words to sum up Silovsky’s performance idiom: “Oops” and “Sorry.” Joe is the tinkerer we all want to be. He emerges from the side door as though he accidentally wandered in off the street, clad in t-shirt and jeans, and performs and weaves his stories as would an uncle who’s been asked to tell an impromptu tale of his days in The ‘Nam. But in a Beckettian fashion, Silovsky’s failures are carefully placed and vital to understanding the art of performance and the tenet that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. Naturally, it would follow, Joe uses these two little words over a dozen times in the all-too-brief sixty minutes.
It could be argued that Silovsky actually plays an incredibly incidental role in Jester: most of his enactments, unlike a Spalding Gray or a Mike Daisey, take place within intricate puppet sets that he’s created, wrapped in a vast array of suitcases that fill the small space. The DIY sets utilize everything from old-fashioned shadow puppetry to video projections to pop-up books to his co-star, the proxy for The Jester of Tonga: Stanley the robot, whose mannerisms are reminiscent of a guest on a daytime talk show.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the idea here (if you like, you can read up at our friend Culturebot), as that’s half the fun of Silovsky’s presentation. What’s truly amazing about Joe is that he is the stereotype who you imagine would be performing even if no audience were about. He’s no dynamo, but when he descends into the worlds he’s created, some child-like god, he is so natural and so wondrous, that you can’t help but be drawn in. And hopefully you can give in to the veritable playground Joe has fostered, where monkey bars are a fortress, and the blacktop is a racecourse. (If I had to criticize one thing about Jester, it’s the space itself. In a workshop at St. Ann’s last year, Joe had the entirety of the gigantic space in which to play, requiring a tricycle and wagons to parade his set-concoctions about. In the small PS space, he seems more like a kid who’s been banished to his room. Still ready to escape, but constrained nonetheless.)
Most importantly, though, is that Joe not only allows for these tiny burps in the seams of Jester, but celebrates them. Performance, especially one that centers around memory and history, is utterly and hopelessly imperfect. And what better way for a performer to communicate this condition than through the intricate and fragile sets that he’s fabricated with wires, poster paper, scrap metal, and magic markers. The analogy extends of course to even the most advanced technologies, laptops and light boards, which are just as complex and delicate as their theatrical precursors.
Even the wonderfully crafted Stanley, who is supposed to be a jester, is left as a robot because, according to his creator, “I liked the way he looked.” No prentention, no force, no excess. Instead, the Dr. Frankenstein of puppetry slaps two red diamonds on Stanley’s chest. There. A jester.
So when Joe realizes that he can’t impart the story on the prisoners’ island of Tonga, the “apex” of his trip, and when the sound to the video recording his first encounter with the Jester of Tonga in person, after seven years of searching, is entirely muddled and inaudible, it comes as no surprise. Better yet, we don’t want to hear it, see it, experience it. If the tender loving care of Joe Silovsky doesn’t give a moment the imaginative seal of approval, it’s performance waste. Give us the tangents, the incidentals, the interruptions, that a narrative critic would deem obstacles; the rest of us know that this is the stuff life is made of.