Gabriel and Reno: Mixing and Matching Solo Performances

I had the privilege of seeing not one, but two, utterly original solo performances last week. On Wednesday, I finally got to catch up with Reno’s sometimes bi-monthly, sometimes monthly, FREE show entitled Ignorance Is No Excuse at the tiny Lounge at Dixon Place in NYC. Then on Friday night, I saw Gabriel Kahane’s 8980: Book of Travelers at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.

While completely different from one another, there were some important parallels. Both performers, hailing from NYC and dressed in casual garb, gave us shows that were exactly one hour in length in intimate spaces and with eloquent accompaniment. Whereas Reno’s show was free and took place in the extremely intimate because small lounge space at Dixon Place, Gabriel Kahane’s performance, while not exactly cheap was not as pricey as Broadway and took place at the much larger but still intimate BAM Harvey Theatre. Reno was accompanied on stage by her dog Edith Ann/Edi who accompanies Reno EVERYWHERE and Gabriel Kahane was accompanied by his piano and by the video projections on 4 large screens behind him.

I love Reno’s work and it’s been much too long since I’ve had a chance to see her perform. How happy was I, then, when I walked into Dixon Place and lo and behold saw Reno at her laptop, preparing for her show which would start in a matter of minutes. I was happy for another reason which the following interaction with the house manager will reveal. When said house manager came through the space, he took one look at me and said, “Oh good, you came back and this time you will get to see Reno.” Now how in the world is it possible that after all the faces he sees on a daily/nightly basis, he remembered that I was there the month before and was one of the disappointed who had to be turned away because Reno had been unable to perform?! It was a free show so why should he remember or care? Now that’s what I call paying attention. If only the world could be run by people with such qualities!

When Reno took her place in the spotlight with Edi nestled at her feet, I sat forward, eager to hear and see what she had in store for us. Reno’s performances consist of Reno telling us things about herself and about the world she and we live in. She punctuates her performance with lots of lively facial expressions, exaggerated physical gestures and well-placed, even needed, cursing. She never tries to be anybody but who she is and if who she is at that particular moment is thinking about several different things at the same time, then that’s the person the audience gets. And if she doesn’t finish one of the points she starts, well that’s part of what makes it a Reno performance. On that night, Reno was interested in talking about how she and Edi are negotiating the news that Edi has bladder cancer, about the issues connected to the latest high-profile men fired from their high-powered jobs because of allegations of sexual harassment, including Garrison Keillor and Matt Lauer (the news had just broke that day), about growing up with her adoptive parents who were working-class Protestants (aka WASPS in Reno’s parlance) with many rules (such as the no shower at night rule or the can’t be thirsty after 8:30 p.m. rule), and about Trump’s most recent set-to with Elizabeth Warren, in which, while standing in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson ostensibly to honor the Native American code talkers, he called Warren, Pochahantas. Throughout the performance Reno incited equal parts laughter, outrage, agreement, disagreement, concern, and poignancy. My head bobbed up and down in agreement on a lot of her points (worrying about when the outrage being turned against men who harass will turn against women), and occasionally also bobbed in the other direction when I disagreed (her confidence in the Democrats). That’s the thing about Reno. Though she always performs right in the audience’s space, gets right into their faces and directly asks them pointed questions, she never censors what she says to please her audience.

Gabriel Kahane’s 8980: Book of Travelers is named after the number of miles he traversed by train from one coast of the US to the other over the course of two weeks.   The result of that journey, he informed us on Friday evening, is a series of songs relating the stories of the people he met. The performance is sometimes melodic, sometimes electronic, sometimes haunting, sometimes disturbing, sometimes humorous, and always profound. Part of the profundity comes from the fact that it is like nothing I have ever experienced before, and I love that even after seeing as much theater as I have, I can still be surprised and be made to experience storytelling differently. 8980 is billed as a solo concert and song cycle, which it certainly is, but as soon as Kahane informed us that his songs told stories of the people he met, I felt that it was less concert, despite the indisputable presence of piano and song, and more solo performance of the kind I have been blogging about.

One story that is developed over the course of several songs involves six young men in suspenders that Kahane sees nightly in the dining car. We get the story obliquely and in pieces: through interspersed songs, a sung stanza of a hymn including the words “heavenly home,” and images projected on video screens. At different points, the screens project six masculine first names, and later six pair of blue-jean legs in boots, and then later still, six suspendered torsos standing outside an Amtrak train. Songs here and there and in between other, unrelated songs, flesh out the story of these men and of their interaction with Kahane. In an early song Kahane sings of being intrigued by the group but fearful to say anything to them because he is a stranger. In a later song, Kahane sings of asking the young men if he can join them in singing a hymn which he does. The sweet exchange ends jarringly, however, because song leads to conversation leads to silence. Kahane asks the young men about their faith. They respond that they are Old Order German Baptist Brethren. They then ask Kahane “What faith are you?” Kahane answers, “Jewish,” and a long silence ensues that is only broken when Kahane gets up and leaves the car. This leads to an apparently unrelated song in which Kahane sings of being alone in his sleeper car thinking about the arrest of his Jewish great grandfather in Germany in 1939, the trip that his grandmother had to take to the US after that arrest, and of the postcards she no longer received from family members in Germany as the war continued. Other songs are sung in which strangers Kahane has met talk of ugly episodes in US history, including its lynchings and its rejection of refugees.

A song stood out to me during this portion of the performance because of the way it used form and content to express the mood that had seeped into the songs. It begins innocently and simply enough with Kahane singing the words “William Eggleston’s Sky” (which I have to admit I did not know were the actual words I was hearing until after the performance and which is a reference to the photographer and his series of vast blue sky photographs) to piano accompaniment which he then turns into a refrain that is repeated electronically. Its melody is lovely and it is easy on the ear. Kahane then gets up from the piano and moves to a microphone directly in front of the audience (an action that screamed solo performance to me because of the way that it transforms our performer from pianist to something else) and overlays the “William Eggleston’s Sky” refrain with electronically modified vocals—sounding alarmingly like someone who has just swallowed helium from a balloon—shouting out sights like Taco Bell and Howard Johnson along with various advertisements. As I sat there listening, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where is this song taking us? Why are we hearing the words “William Eggleston’s Sky” (which at the time I didn’t actually understand) interspersed with various roadside advertisements? Why are the rhythms at once harmonious and jarringly disturbing?” And then Kahane burst out with the lines, which he repeated several times and which he manipulated electronically so they were delivered at an impossible speed, “I am in love with America/I am betrayed by America/I am dismayed by America” and that’s all I needed. His songs, and this song in particular, were meant to capture what there is to love and fear about ourselves in America. At this point I was wondering if the audience was being asked to focus more on the sense of betrayal/dismay.

But, Kahane hadn’t finished with the story of those six young men in the dining car. Kahane sings of being back in that sleeper car and hearing a knock on his door and opening the door to the porter who is there to relay the message that the six young men in the dining car would like to know if he would join them in singing a hymn. And I thought, how impossibly possible that the story could possess this moment of strangers being united across differences in the dining car of an Amtrak train traveling across the country. In Kahane’s story(song)telling, the narrator/singer never explicitly tells the audience what to think or feel. But the pieces are there for the audience to connect. And this audience member connected inchoate but nonetheless forceful ideas about loneliness, not belonging, being alone among strangers, feeling cast out, but also sometimes, strangely, improbably, miraculously, about belonging.

How lucky I was to be able to experience the performances by both Reno and Gabriel Kahane.

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