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Joseph Keckler

A multi-hyphenate finds a singular outlet in performance

Adam Gardiner
Joseph Keckler

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/14/2010

Francine is down. The zaftig woman who just a few moments ago was decrying the way her future looked--a long dark highway full of endless tollbooths and no exits--just chug-a-lugged her last tipple and passed out in a heap onstage at New York's Joe's Pub, the cabaret-like space attached to the Public Theater. Almost immediately a groovy gal in early '60s doo and mini-dress takes a place behind a microphone. The three-piece band onstage begins a stately introductory dirge. And then, Joseph Keckler, the New York performance artist presiding over his "Midnight Mass" the Saturday before Easter, opens his mouth and sings, in a robust baritone, the tale of "Poor Francine."

Dapper in a light suit with his long-ish hair tucked behind his ears, Keckler at first sounds like Leonard Cohen singing an operetta, before switching mid-verse to a less deep range to delivery sassily, "Don't worry Francine, I hear every word this skag says and I'll testify in a court" before switching back just as seamlessly to sing, "You'll find another man, Francine." The song is a mash note to her, the "drinkingnest gal that I've ever seen," a musical reminder to not let the fuckers get you down.

It's an arresting display of vocal control and disarming wit, but Keckler is just warming up. He starts by recalling watching John Waters' Cry-Baby before moving through a pyrotechnic dissection on the dilution of Hairspray as it moved from the 1988 original movie through its 2002 Broadway musical and the eventual 2007 movie based on the musical, parsing its subtle changes and alterations before arriving at the observation that the weight-related self-loathing of John Travolta's Edna Turnblad is downright poisonous.

It's a tour de force of deconstruction, and a singular moment that brings all three of Keckler's strengths together into a Windsor knot of heady entertainment. A gifted musician/vocalist, writer, and actor, Keckler can work individually in each setting, but as a performance artist he can pull each of those talents into his multifaceted stage events.

"I see that as a kind of sermon about John Waters and values," Keckler laughs of his "Poor Francine" stand-alone piece the next day over brunch at an East Village cafe. "Values that matter. When Hairspray on Broadway came out, I understood, on the one hand, that commercialization is just another perversion for John Waters, and I appreciate that. But I was very hurt by Hairspray the musical. I was hurt and traumatized by it, and I needed my voice to be heard.

"And I just started ranting to people about it," he continues. "People would be, 'Oh, did you see Hairspray?' And I would start giving all these examples. Do you remember in the movie, Penny Pingleton says, 'I'm just a little nervous,' but in the musical they transferred that line to Tracy Turnblad--this is important because Tracy Turnblad should not be a little nervous. I remembered that movie neurotically, so I knew every little change that they made and I just started doing this rant and deconstruction of it. Eventually I just thought, I feel strongly about this, so I should write it."

That the personal is the political is the ideal kernel for material is a peek into Keckler's process. Keckler has a degree in painting but has always studied theater and classical music as well, and in college at the University of Michigan he started "writing autobiographical monologues that were kind of like short fictions, little slice of life things," he says. "They tended toward character portraits, but with a very strong narrative voice. The longer solo work that I've developed usually has a strong personal element, about somebody in my life, and often a family member. I have two shows about my mother and one about the funeral of my aunt, a community theater actress of Kalamazoo, and a couple of strange moments. One where everyone started clapping watching this video for [Little Shop of Horrors'] 'Suddenly Seymour' and another one where I was singing 'Ave Maria' at the funeral and I started noticing all these people that I recognize, and I came to realize they were all these patrons at the gay bar Brothers in Kalamazoo, where I'd gone as a teenager. So then I imagined my aunt as the Judy Garland of Kalamazoo."

During his "Midnight Mass" performance, Keckler moved seamlessly from musical numbers--original songs, such as the opening number about a man and his iguana, and ingenious covers, such as a scorching reading of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs"--to spoken-word pieces to somewhat improvised character monologues and interactive pieces with text and film. It was a smorgasbord of Keckler's various performance contexts, and it'd be easy to see him as a young, male Ann Magnuson, a performance artist that helps calibrate Keckler's omnivorous approach. At Michigan, he studied under Holly Hughes, one of the NEA Four, the 1980s performance artists who had their funding vetoed by NEA chairman John Frohnmayer in 1990. And like that era of performance, Keckler combines traditional media--stage acting, classical voice, narrative writing--to create new story and character spaces onstage with a subversive glee.

But he also knows experiencing the work is totally dependent on seeing him, and recently, he started making more reproducible media. He's recording an album, working with fashion designer Gary Graham on a video project, and adapting short monologues and character collages for other video projects, and in August, he heads to the Yaddo retreat to work on his book. In 21st-century performance, the work needs to be able to travel without him.

"My mother used to read me this story about owl at home, about this owl who started running up and down the stairs to see if it could be at both places at once," Keckler smiles. "And he couldn't do it. So I don't want to feel like owl."

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