Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Outsider: Rachel Mason and Little Band of Sailors at Asia Song Society

Performance stills of Rachel Mason and Little Band of Sailors, The Outsider, at Asia Song Society, New York, July 12, 2011.

"The breeze is actually quite pleasant," an Asia Song Society employee advised me by email yesterday, letting me know that if I arrived at ASS after all the seats for Rachel Mason's performance were filled, I'd still be able to see through the front window from the street. I made it just in time to find a spot, and discovered members of Mason's backing band, Little Band of Sailors, already in position, bravely waiting to begin the performance in the scorchingly hot gallery. (Those who chose to watch from the outside had made a more prudent choice.)

Performance excerpts of Rachel Mason and Little Band of Sailors, The Outsider, at ASS, July 12, 2011. Video: 16 Miles

Mason and Little Band of Outsiders also performed the work at the Terence Koh-backed gallery on Monday night.

Just before 8:30, a man near the back of the stage, wearing thick makeup around his eyes, intoned the opening lines of H. P. Lovecraft's 1926 short story "The Outsider": "Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness…" Two guitarists wearing cat masks, their huge yellow eyes pointed at the audience, accompanied him, lending an ominous, albeit vaguely corny, prog-rock touch to the affair. It seemed clear that things were going to get weird. They did.

Mason and her crew proceeded to enact Lovecraft's story, a tale about a man escaping from a deserted castle in search of life, with films, costume changes, and songs, a gesamtkunstwerk that veered wildly from bracingly literal moments from the story (a video of the main character, somewhat mysteriously clad in a white Spandex suit and white motorcycle helmet, climbing the side of a building), to more bizarre, abstract passages in the form of musical interludes sung by Mason.

Lovecraft's character eventually escapes his prison and finds another castle, where he encounters a spectral presence, "a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable." Mayhem ensues, as it did in the gallery, with a large group of people (visible in one of the video excerpts) screaming and dancing wildly about a tall, ghastly looking creature, who later sang a haunting, chant-like song.

There was much more. The Venezuelan punk musician Yva Las Vegas provided a surprise entr'acte, singing and madly strumming an acoustic guitar from a stool at the back of the gallery. A limber woman in another cat mask crawled around the stage, twisting her body into a bridge. Mason, song after song, costume after costume, dominated the audience like a ghostly, contemporary Patti Smith. (She has also been described as "Alice Cooper meets Carol King in another dimension," which is a fine description.)

A three-masked chanteuse dashed out onto Canal Street, and sang into ASS via a wireless microphone.

And near the end of the show, a performer wearing three Eyes Wide Shut-style masks, a red leotard, and a purple cape — it appeared to be Mason again — burst through the open door of the gallery and dashed out to the center of Canal Street, spinning in place and singing into the gallery via a wireless microphone. She moved gracefully from one side of the road to the other when a car approached, and then retreated inside.

At the end of Lovecraft's story, his protagonist returns to his castle and attempts to resume his life as a hermit. He fails and becomes a wanderer in the world, "an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men." That line could very well apply to Mason's sublime and strange work, for which she has melded the intricate stagecraft and high drama of theater with the raw, apparently improvisational nature of performance art.

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