Sunday, January 30, 2011

PuSh Review #9: Hard Core Logo LIVE at the Rickshaw

Hard Core Logo is the punk performance piece that keeps on giving. First there was Michael Turner’s 1993 “novel-in-verse,” at once a fictionalized account of his own time in the Hard Rock Miners and a quasi-documentary archive of Vancouver’s not-so-secret punk history. Generically, the book was as effective a détournement of artistic forms (including Situationist-inspired collage) as frontman Joe Dick’s convincing of his bandmates to go acoustic for their reunion tour was colossally misguided. Then came Bruce McDonald’s 1996 film treatment, itself an inspired mash-up of styles, including the mockumentary, the road movie, and the buddy flick. A year later, Nick Craine’s graphic novel, Hard Core Logo: Portrait of a Thousand Punks, mixed elements from Turner’s novel and McDonald’s film to create a new, hybrid verbal-visual version of the story. And now, hot on the heels of McDonald’s movie sequel (which apparently focuses on a female punk rocker haunted by Joe’s ghost and visited in the flesh by Bucky Haight), we have Hard Core Logo: LIVE. This theatrical adaptation is currently playing at the Rickshaw Theatre on East Hastings as part of the PuSh Festival, in a co-production with local companies November Theatre (of Black Rider fame) and Touchstone Theatre, and the Edmonton-based Theatre Network.

The concert scenes were the best part of McDonald’s film, complete with body slamming, copious on-stage drinking and exchanges of body fluids and, in the case of the band’s climactic meltdown in Edmonton, a full-on slap down between Joe and lead guitarist Billy Tallent to off-his-meds John Oxenberger’s spoken word refrain of “In the end there’s love.” So it makes sense, in a live stage version, to focus on the band’s gigs, and to incorporate the venue and the audience into the action as much as possible. To this end, the Rickshaw’s grungy, past-its-prime look feels wholly appropriate, and while I shivered the whole way through the performance, even the lack of heat seemed authentic. Additionally, creator Michael Scholar, Jr., who plays Joe, commissioned original music from DOA’s Joe “Shithead” Keithley to accompany Turner’s lyrics. I understand that much of that music was prerecorded; however, it is loud, Toby Berner’s Pipefitter is certainly playing the drums, everyone in the band is in fine vocal form, and if most in the audience tended to respect the fourth wall of theatre instead of the open window of the punk concert hall, they nevertheless showed their enthusiastic appreciation after each song.

What was surprising to me was just how many of the non-musical vignettes from the book and the film the creators of this stage version retained. Long, expository scenes link the musical numbers, in which the bandmates talk directly to the audience (as they do to McDonald’s camera in the film) and John (a wonderful Clinton Carew) reads, as per Turner’s book, from his journal. Indeed, I would go so far to say that Hard Core Logo: LIVE is perhaps too faithful to its source texts. It’s almost as if Scholar did not want to have to take sides, incorporating the set pieces from McDonald’s film (including not just all of the van scenes, but the toy claymation truck and rolling blacktop pavement as well) alongside stuff from the book that the film left out (Act 2 even opens with an acoustic version of “Big Bush Party after School”). It makes for a very long evening, and while the piece certainly works as an homage, I’m not sure it yet stands on its own as something new—and newly responsive to its theatrical context. While Rachael Johnston (fantastic in a number of roles) nails Bucky Haight’s accent and faded Brit-punk ennui, the acid trip scene inevitably ends up looking like a cheap imitation of the one in the film, and precisely because it attempts to mirror the celluloid version too closely. And I don’t think the film’s ending works for the stage, especially if Joe then rises from the dead—or to heaven, depending on how you read the scene—for one more number, in this case a spirited version of “That’s Life” arranged by Keithley. That said, one of the major coups of this piece is Jamie Nesbitt’s superb projection design. And the opening anthropological film by Jason Margolis, “A Punkerland Who’s Who,” is hilarious, and a nice nod to Turner’s own academic training in ethnography.

One final thing that could have been foregrounded a little better, I thought, was the performance of punk masculinity that is such a big part of this work. The film, famously, pivots on a hoax that Joe—to his, and the band’s, eventual destruction—insists on perpetuating. It concerns the ostensible reason for the band’s reunion, i.e., that Bucky has supposedly been shot. However, I have argued elsewhere that another hoax at play in the book and film is that of the “non-performative performance” of heteronormative masculinity, which insists that real feeling between men must be hidden under layers of bluff swagger and sublimated within a theatrical masquerade of (in this case) subcultural identity. In other words, one of punk’s many performative operations (in addition to anti-establishment and class dis-affiliations) is that it continues to let boys be boys, retaining and expressing, for example, a polymorphous affection for one another in ways that the “real world” of grown-up men (where any kind of emotion and labour must be channeled in more productive directions) simply will not allow. Hard Core Logo, the film, makes it abundantly clear that for Joe the band is his way of holding on not just to Billy, but to a masculine persona that he simply cannot bring himself to retire. Maybe it was because I didn’t feel the right sparks between Scholar’s Joe and Telly James’s somewhat passive Billy, but last night—in a setting where the theatricality of gender should be front and centre (as in, for example, Johnston’s cross-dressing)—it seemed to me that dominant masculinity remained a fairly stable default referent.

Hard Core Logo: LIVE continues at the Rickshaw to February 6th.


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