Let me be honest—I had never heard of any of the three acts I saw on Tuesday at RHIZOME, so had no expectations or preconceptions. And that’s good—because the work of all three was mind-expanding, and in Christine Ferrera’s case, very funny.
The show is trenchant, intelligent and funny.
“Cats, Criminals & Comedians!” grew out of Ferrera’s MFA thesis, and the world is richer for that. At it’s most basic, Ferrera is an art historian giving an enthusiastic PowerPoint lecture tracing the history of women’s performance art in the latter half of the 20th century—and the artists presented may be fictional, but the discussion of how women are judged in their art intersects with how women are judged in their lives in society. The show is trenchant, intelligent and funny.
One of the best bits is also the first—a completely savage introduction of a woman who performed a decades-long performance piece after emigrating to the U.S. from somewhere in Eastern Europe—through marriage and children—because of a lack of options, or as Ferrera puts it: marrying a man she was indifferent to, having children she didn’t want, and suppressing her intelligence for the duration of her life.
Divided into decades, each segment is introduced by a musical interlude by her partner and musician and writer, Dan Hanrahan. This music also gives Ferrera, and her co-presenter, Jacob Budenz (co-director & performer) a chance to dance; somehow the three of them make these musical interludes not-so-subtly ironic.
Another particularly timely bit was a hysterically funny takedown of Ann Coulter—and it was done with such faux empathy and compassion that for a moment, you almost said to yourself, “Poor Ann, so brave, giving so much to her performance art.” Then reality snaps back in.
Ferrera makes her points succinctly and with serious humor—as performance art has always been treated as avant-garde in a suspicious sense, women artists working in that zone have to work twice as hard to remain true to their visions and have an incredible amount of courage to just keep working in a society at large (and art world in a smaller sense) that generally sees independent women artists as punchlines or frightening or subversive (and not in that “noble man,” Les Mis way).
Prior to the performance art piece were two musical acts: George Cory Todd and MothBroth.
The first act was a special appearance by George Cory Todd, a musician and sound artist based in Berkeley, California, who was visiting in the area. His work started off with a conversation of somebody who had seen Taylor Dayne (full disclosure: I had never heard of Taylor Dayne and had to look her up) and from that a sort of song journey began with the narrator running into Taylor Dayne at places and repeating the same two sentences to her. The music provided the link between the Taylor Dayne sightings, becoming more complex and changing, even as Taylor Dayne’s responses to her fan changed from “I don’t do that anymore” to “I’m doing a new song.”
Moth Broth is “the psychedelic witchpop collaboration of Greg Hatem (Natural Velvet) and Jake Bee (Dreambaby).” As they noted during the show, they have taken a two-year hiatus from performing, but continued writing music for their upcoming album, “I, a Flying Crab.” Greg Hatem played the electric autoharp and provided vocals and Jake Bee (aka Jacob Budenz) provided vocals; there was a keyboardist as well. The songs included crowd favorites “Crawl Inside the Yam; “Baba Yaga;” “Silver Carp, If He’s Free;” and “Summer Country.” I have rarely seen a musician so deep into the zone while performing as Hatem; he elicited striking sounds and melodies from the autoharp, and then looked up at song’s end startled to see the audience. One caveat was that at times the instruments threatened to overwhelm Bee’s clear, light tenor, but that’s nothing that a sound engineer couldn’t check.
Overall, it was an enlightening evening as well as enjoyable and relevant. RHIZOME is in an older house converted to a performance and art space that provides a space for artists that push boundaries and experiment. We’re lucky we live in an area large enough for the more mainstream venues and the ones providing a landing place for visionaries.
Running Time: Roughly 40-45 minutes for the two musical acts, and then 55 minutes for “Cats, Criminals & Comedians!”
“Cats, Criminals & Comedians,” was at RHIZOME, Washington, DC/Takoma Park, MD, for one night on August 20, 2019. For more information on her work and upcoming performances, please click here.