If all the weather reports are correct, not only will Steve Cuiffo have managed to recreate Lenny Bruce's most famous performance on precisely the same date 50 years later, in the same city, he'll also have a taste of the similarly foul weather that preceded the performance. According to Albert Goldman's novelistic CD liner notes for the recording of Bruce's 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert, a blizzard replete with below-zero temperatures hit the city the day before. No one was entirely sure if anyone would brave the snow and city-wide ban on driving to gather in Midtown to hear a man who was still just building his popularity at the time. But come they did, and he apparently gave the performance of his life.
It's pretty gutsy of a young performer to want to recreate such an iconic moment on stage, particularly one by a man credited with influencing an entire generation of comedians and performance artists. But Steve Cuiffo seems up to the task.
A versatile performer, Cuiffo first worked on the stage as a teenage magician before jumping into a gig with the Wooster Group right out of undergrad. For a relatively young guy, Cuiffo seems to have already earned some acting chops. I spoke with him a couple weeks before his big show at St. Ann's Warehouse (February 4, 5 at 8pm) to talk about his interest in Bruce and in experimental performance work in general.
How much of your recreation will be taken directly from Bruce's original, in terms of both the performance and the text?
All of it. I mean, obviously there are some differences. It's not going to be at Carnegie Hall and it's not going to be at midnight—we're doing it at eight o'clock in Brooklyn. But, in terms of the performance, it's going to be exact. Because that's the other aspect I've learned as I've been working on this material—I feel there's a direct correlation between the content of what he's saying and how he expresses it vocally, rhythmically and tonally.
I've transcribed a lot of his material and when you read it you can get some sense of the idea, but you don't get the full sense of it until you hear him speaking it. That's the unique thing about Lenny Bruce. I feel like my contribution to this is also bringing it back into live performance, because now you can only listen to him on CD and see a few film clips. But his whole thing was the live performance in front of an audience, expressing these words. That's the element that I can add to it.
For my own pleasure I've tried to recreate it exactly, every intonation—it's a very technical thing. With the live audience, the new contemporary audience, and the reactions that happen, it becomes this hyper-real experience. My task for myself is to try to nail it rhythmically as I hear it in my head, but then it transforms into this new kind of performance art of some kind. Which has been very exciting in its different incarnations.