PEN World Voices: The PEN Cabaret

05/04/2009 4:31 PM |

3016/1241469479-cabaret.jpgThe PEN World Voices Festival‘s Saturday night Cabaret boasted an eye-catching program filled with impressive literary and performance heavy hitters (Lou Reed! James Franco! Parker Posey! Laurie Anderson!) The killer line-up even lured Salman Rushdie (and his tall lady-friend) to the packed event.

Author A.M. Homes served as a master of ceremonies of sorts: she introduced and closed the event, without reading any of her own work. Walter Mosley, crime fiction specialist, kicked off the evening by reading from his novel The Long Fall. He proved to be an engaging reader. Next, Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya read from his eighth novel, Senselessness, in Spanish. The English translation, read by actor David Conrad, trailed the original Spanish like an echo every few lines. Both readers were backed by a drummer, whose light touch intensified into a dramatic, cathartic solo at the finish. Moya’s book is a lengthy monologue-rant from a shadowy narrator whose job is to edit a 1,100-page report of committed atrocities. Like a refrain, the line “I am not complete in the mind” is repeated seemingly ad infinitum. Yeesh! Unsettling stuff.

Irish poet Nick Laird followed with several poems, throwing in self-consciously self-deprecating commentary at every interim. He said of one poem: “It’s a sonnet in one sentence — which isn’t a boast, it explains syntax”. Sure, sure.

After a brief intermission, ’twas time for a poetry slam, one of the easiest art forms of to mock. Slammers Steve Connell and Sekou showcased energy unparalleled by anyone else who took the take the stage before or after them, and the synchronicity between the duo was remarkable. The message they rallied for was a good one — free speech for all and uncompromised self-expression, which is precisely what PEN is all about. But…. poetry slams, inevitably, in my humble opinion, feel a little juvenile, no matter how worthy their message.

Mark Z. Danielewski started his set with an apology to Laurie Anderson, saying he owed her money for having illegally downloaded one of her albums. It felt a little gimmicky. However, once he began reading… man. He’s got “creepy” down pat! He read from his macabre book, The Fifty Year Sword, in absolutely haunting tones.

Following that was the most celebrity-crammed piece of the evening: a one-act adaptation of the Jonathan Franzen-penned New York chapter pulled from the compendium State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Actor/grad student/soon-to-be-published-author James Franco played the protagonist Franzen, who sought a meeting with concept-turned-person “New York” (played breathily by the effervescent Patricia Clarkson). Instead of securing said meeting, Franzen-Franco gets pulled left and right into a maze of bureaucracy, like some kind of modern-day version of an old-world journey parable. Franzen encounters host of weird characters: New York’s obnoxious, controlling “Publicist” (Parker Posey, dead-on nailing her character’s sense of unrivalled entitlement); Carrie Brownstein as the relentless “Historian”; Sean Wilsey as “the geologist”… until, finally, he’s able to reach this mystified figure, iconic New York.

There were some wonderful evocations of New York nostalgia and some great, funny line-readings. Considering everyone was reading off of scripts it felt a little bit like sitting in on a rehearsal, and the act itself was ran a little long for its own good, but overall it was an impressive bit by the kinds of people you always love to see perform.

Last and the opposite of least, Lou Reed, rock icon of insouciant cool, and his wife, multimedia performance artist Laurie Anderson, strolled onstage together, after tech problems created a serious hold-up. (It was bad: the audience sat awkwardly as a tech guy made repeat trips to fix the equipment). But finally, the anticipated couple made their way onstage and launched into computerized experimental electronic noise. Almost immediately, they frightened away a portion of the audience with their cacophony. Laurie Anderson knows her way around a vocoder and a tricked-out violin, and Lou Reed’s deadpan voice is as potent as ever, but the couples’ act felt like an SNL skit: a hint of the parodic absurd, like that wedding singers skit. Musicians should take themselves seriously and they should challenge their audience. But avant-garde and being alienating are different things (or, well, maybe not). In any case, the obtuse audio was not for everyone; it was not the easiest performance to digest.

All in all, as with most ensemble acts, there were ups and downs among the varietals offered. While “Cabaret” might be deemed a bit of a glamorized term for the event, it was wonderful to see a smorgasbord of media on one stage. This kind of cultural fusion should occur way, way more often.