The artist biography, whether on stage, film, or the written page, is a precarious and dangerous form. It can lead even the best storytellers into a plodding parade of “this happened, and then that happened, and, oh, this happened again.” Every sliver of experience is precious; every confrontation momentous; every mundane fact a revelation, as if to leave anything out would be to miss some crucial aspect of genius.
Sometimes it helps when the subject isn’t famous, or at least not dazzlingly so. Remy Charlip (1929-2012) — dancer, choreographer, children’s book illustrator, and a key player in New York’s post war avant-garde — is promising in that way. Charlip was well known, but not quite a major player, and certainly not on the level of the many 20th century titans he worked with, such as choreographer Merce Cunningham, composers John Cage and Lou Harrison, and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Charlip’s interests were as varied as his style was distinct. Yet there was something light about his touch, not just in his work, but also in his presence, which was precise and ethereal. If there’s an artist temperamentally unsuited to the numbing literalism of biography, it’s Charlip. And one can imagine him twisting the genre to his own liking and executing it with a disarming élan.
In that spirit, San Francisco theater artist Seth Eisen’s Rainbow Logic, a performance piece currently playing at CounterPulse, begins in promising and stunning fashion. In the front corner of the stage, just out of reach from the first row, is a small puppet theater. The toy box proscenium is as plain as could be, though a tiny swatch of red curtain suggests a dash of magic. A giant illuminated book — propped open — looms over the whole scene, dwarfing both the puppet theater and the larger set.
As the play begins, the three-person cast converges behind the toy theater like Greek Gods surveying the world. The curtain opens and there before us is a charming and delicate Charlip puppet, which is then projected through a live feed onto the oversized book. The effect is beautiful, reversing the normal logic and orientation of how we see the stage. Charlip’s body might be as small as a doll’s, but his spirit is vast and burns with the clarity of light.
In turning the stage into a projection of a puppet’s memory, Eisen catches something fundamental about both the theater and Charlip. It’s not so much a philosophy, but rather a method by which complex arrangements can suddenly take on a shocking simplicity. That ability probably explains why so many volatile and talented artists enjoyed working with him. It also provides Eisen a way into the life and mind of this strange talent.
So on a conceptual and scenic level, Rainbow Logic is fascinating. However, Eisen the writer fails to take advantage of what Eisen the designer offers. The script traffics in the worst artist-bio tropes you can imagine, sledging its way through what was quite a long and eventful life. It’s a paint-by-numbers approach that confuses excess with significance. Do we really need a scene of Charlip and Harrison arguing about cleaning house? Or one where Charlip celebrates getting into Cooper Union?
There are a few moments where you can see what Eisen was after. But few of them have to do with what happened, and instead catch what it must have felt like to feel as Charlip did. Watching the actors, especially Colin Creveling as the Young Remy, simply do things (dance, paint, perform gymnastics) is infinitely more interesting than the dutiful chronicling of events.
We want to be thrust into a life, a way of thinking and feeling — not told that that life is significant because things happened. That could be anyone’s life. Eisen’s set is a flash of inspiration; his writing, however, is the kind of overabundant mess Charlip worked hard to avoid.
‘Rainbow Logic’ runs through Sunday, Nov. 20, at CounterPulse in San Francisco. For tickets and information, click here.