Whether we’re post-gay, post-AIDS, post-Will & Grace, or blindly drifting in the marketing-driven scam of metrosexuality (which, by definition, is a male heterosexual mannerism), queer male identity is certainly due for an overhaul. Luckily, there appears to be a trend in queer performance to boldly, and with intelligence, break out of, or at least seriously bend, the tropes of camp and drag in an effort to present queerness in all its rich, contemporary complexity. In early April, on a shared bill at the new New Museum curiously titled Extreme Behavior, performing artists Neal Medlyn and Jack Ferver offered wildly different projects, each evoking various dimensions of queer identity–whether intentionally or not–and with results that exhibit a common reluctance to be placed.
Jack Ferver’s I AM TRYING TO HEAR MYSELF wanders through the sexual subconscious as he and Paul Lane struggle with intense and arrested desires. Using monologues, music, and genuine dance, Ferver stirs up a heady mix of sexual passivity and cultural friction.
While some of his dramatic scenarios are well worn—the attractive but abusively cold object of desire, the often close proximity of sex and violence—there are moments when Ferver and his rebellious attitude surprise. In the opening routine, Ferver struts around in a circle, fakes wearing high-heels and cigarette smoking while throwing all kinds of shade, and in the finale, Renee Benson stands up from the audience and sings, with Ferver eventually joining her in gospel chorus, “I am disappeared! I am disappointed!”
Costumes ranging from a black, slick rain coat to your standard ’80s porn chic short-shorts and striped tube socks, evoke contradictory images of masculinity, sometimes gender bending, other times, quintessentially boyish. That is where Ferver and Neal Medlyn may actually find some common ground.
Medlyn’s particular brand of queerness challenges virtually every line you can draw, and his performance style seems largely to rely on amateuresque exuberance, like a kid who’s found his sister’s sequined dance costume and just has to put it on.
But Medlyn’s boyish charms begin to wear thin mid-way through his send-up of Beyoncé’s self-righteous and flagrantly decadent birthday concert DVD, “The Beyoncé Experience—Live!”. While the outrageousness of a tall, skinny white man acting out the booty-shaking antics of the ultimate R&B diva is at first amusing in its absurdity, the tactic becomes rote; a mere replication of the concert without any complex dialog between Medlyn and his media source.
It was certainly fun to watch. Medlyn’s energy is contagious and inexhaustible. Will Rawls (who adapted the choreography) and Eric Montes as back-up dancers were perpetually fierce. And while I admire Medlyn’s geek-forward queer personality, there runs a risk of observers regarding his queerness as having a primarily juvenile (and silly) origin. That can reinforce a kind of condescension that has long haunted gay men: that of the emotionally stunted adult, i.e. Weird guy X would start liking girls and stop running around in pink dresses if he’d only just grow up.
But these and other queer performances I’ve seen in the past year seem to exhibit a similar and emphatic resistance to category. They want to be boyish, or effeminate, or butch, or confused, or just boring, without receiving social censure for it, and without being expected to adhere to only one way of being.
Even to use the term “queer” is to risk applying a label that these artists may not identify with, and the effort to liken them probably contradicts the will of their work not to be pinned down, hoping, instead, for a broader appeal. Then again, billing the performance as Extreme Behavior seems—paradoxically—to keep these men in their place.
Ryan Tracy is a writer, performer and composer, and is the Editor of CounterCritic.com.