Alexandra Tatarsky’s solo show should probably come with a warning. This is not because she keeps on taking things out of her crotch, including a Styrofoam head to which she’s apparently given birth; nor because she tells us her “process” is “I drink a lot of coffee and jerk off and cry”…and then does all three simultaneously; nor because there’s nudity, or screaming, or that she plays with her breasts or instructs a male audience member to scratch her ass.
No, the warning should be about how, at the very beginning of “Sad Boys in Harpy Land,” Alexandra Tatarsky opens a can of sardines and stuffs them into her face – and the pungent stink persists far longer into the show and far further in the auditorium at Playwrights Horizons than you would expect.
Actually, maybe there should be another warning about something else unexpected: the mandatory audience participation. This is not as bad as it sounds: About halfway through her ninety-minute show, she asks us to get up from our seats in the auditorium, and move to seats (or stand up) backstage.
Clear away all of the warning-worthy and transgressive shenanigans in “Sad Boys in Harpy Land,” and Alex Tatarsky – performance artist, cabaret singer, and clown – offers a convoluted, fragmented, erudite adaptation of two German coming-of-age novels, connecting them, and herself, to the themes of self-loathing and inaction. But her seriousness is suspect, and it’s the shenanigans that make this show so weirdly captivating.
I was forewarned about Alexandra Tatarsky – I sought her out — because I had seen her raunchy, edgy, smart routine in “Exposure,” a group show at the Prelude Festival and thought her the standout, a performance artist who seems intent on inheriting the mantle of the NEA Four, in particular Karen Finley.
“Sad Boys in Harpy Land” is much longer (too long), and often as obtuse as its title — deliberately, comically so. She tells us that when she was 24 years old, she made a vow to adapt Goethe’s 1796 coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship “alongside my own life for the rest of my life” – the idea being to compare her development stage by stage with that of the character. “The parallels between our lives have been disturbing.” She starts performing scenes in a clownish manner presumably from that novel, but then tells us, no the last scene was actually from another German coming-of-age novel about another German boy, Gunter Grass’s 1959 novel “Tin Drum.”
She sings ditties about despair and self-loathing — “the more you hate yourself the more you hate yourself for hating yourself” – which we’re given to understand are in the voice of Wilhelm from Goethe or Oskar from Grass, except when they’re not. Maybe Alex Tatarsky is singing as herself, or maybe it’s a character one of the little boys is portraying (since they both are interested in the theater.)
The performance sometimes feels like a game of free association. In Goethe’s novel, we’re told at one point, the little boy Wilhelm is obsessed with Dante’s Inferno, especially the ring of hell where suicides are turned into trees and pecked on by harpies. So Tatarsky dresses as a chicken, singing and clucking.
At another point, Tatarsky gets dressed as a Hasidic man because in Grass’s novel, the boy Oskar attends Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, which is “based on the myth of the Ghost Ship – endlessly sailing the sea never setting anchor – which is actually based on the myth of the Wandering Jew,” as she explains.
And it’s as the Wandering Jew that she insists we sing a song with the deliberately awkward lyrics:
When the messianic age comes it will be like this one
but a little bit different
And when the whole world goes to hell, well,
it will be basically what it is now
She makes us repeat this over and over, and dance like a Hasid, and stand up and join her backstage while singing.
Right before this burst of enforced audience participation, she herself offers something of a warning: “It might be messy, it might feel chaotic or confusing, but we’re going to try to have fun.” Not a bad description of “Sad Boys in Harpy Land” as a whole. It is messy, it does feel chaotic, and we – or at least some of us, open to the unexpected – do have fun.
Sad Boys in Harpy Land
Playwrights Horizons through November 26
Running time: 90 minutes
Created and performed by Alexandra Tatarsky
Sound compositions by Shane Riley
Directed by Iris McCloughan
Scenic, Costume & Props Design by Andreea Mincic
Lighting Design by Masha Tsimring
Developed with Eva Steinmetz