by Lynn on April 25, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

Part of Spotlight on South Africa

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Directed and Performed by Steven Cohen
Costume by Elu Kieser

Steven Cohen puts himself in danger for every second of this performance piece, creating art where you least expect it and in a way you would least expect it.

The bare stage and a screen that hangs down at the back are white. You hear Steven Cohen before you see him. You hear amplified tinkling of glass pieces gently hitting each other. Then he appears slowly from stage left. He is an apparition. He is bald with a design painted in gold and black on his head. At the front of his forehead is a Star of David. At the back of his head, close to the crown, is a larger Star of David. His eyelashes are very long and look like they are made of fur. The eyes are dark. The lipstick is black, applied in a pattern that looks like a butterfly over the lips. He wears a tutu in the form of an ornate chandelier. He wears the most dangerous, platform heels I have ever seen. The heel must be more than seven inches. The foot is so arched into the shoe that it looks as if he is on pointe.

He walks slowly across the stage, arms out gracefully, trying to keep his balance. Often one leg goes in front of the other as if in toe shoes (which in a way he is.) A strap of sorts with two loops slowly lowers from the flies. He walks gingerly up to it; puts his wrists through each loop; tightens them and is lifted off the stage as the strap is pulled up. The lights go out. It’s pitch dark in the theatre. Cohen flicks a switch and the chandelier is illuminated and remains illuminated for his performance. The strap is lowered and he stands on the floor again; gets out of the strap loops and walks slowly up the far aisle then back down to the stage and walks across to the other aisle (my aisle).

He walks slowly up the steps of the aisle, putting out a hand to grab onto something. The something is usually the hand of a patron, ready to give a helping hand. Often I noted that patrons put out their hand before he reached out, ready to steady him. He dropped some of the chandelier crystals and had to lean down, carefully, to pick them up. He went up the whole aisle and disappeared out of the auditorium.

When he leaves the white screen is illuminated with a filmed segment of Steven Cohen in the same costume, make-up and heels as he negotiates his way through the squatter camp in Newtown, Johannesburg. The camp is being destroyed by municipal employees. The terrain is uneven with junk, debris, dirt etc. It is treacherous on which to walk, and so his arms are out as if to balance, as well as to silently seek a helping hand. There are many helping hands. The women of the squatter camp are ready without hesitation to help him. He is both a novelty and something that cheers them in this sad place. Often men of the camp help. Some jeer. The women come to his rescue and berate those who condemn him. Certainly the municipal employees insult him and want him to leave as they do their job of destroying the place. The women again fight his battle. Through it all, Cohen is silent and seemingly calm.

At the end of the film the stage is lit, ready for Steven Cohen’s bow. A diminutive barefoot man in black pants and a black top, still in make-up, slowly walks out to center stage, smiles, bows deeply, blows a kiss, and slowly walks off.

Comment. Steven Cohen is in danger every second of this piece, whether in person or on film. Just negotiating the level terrain of the stage is hard enough in those sky-high heels. But walking in that treacherous terrain of the squatter’s camp is life-and-limb-threatening squared. In both cases Cohen not only creates his art, he creates the art of the community. He wordlessly gets the community, whether in the theatre or the camp, to reach out to help him; to steady him with a hand; to berate his insulters; to shake his hand or knock fists together in solidarity.

From his program note: “Artists have always painted the social concerns of their time and by my moving in a chandelier-tutu through a squatter camp being demolished—and filming it—that’s what I’m doing too, a digital painting of a social reality, half beautifully imagined, half horribly real-where Hollywood glamour meets concentration camp horror. I am trying to shed light on what is seldom seen, by creating amid destruction.”

I found Chandelier terribly moving, dazzlingly inventive, brave, and embracing.

Canadian Stage Presents:

Run: April 22-25, 2015

Cast: 1 man

Running Time: 45 minutes.

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