Thirty years is a long time to step away. Jill Kroesen was deeply enmeshed in the downtown performance scene of the 1970s before she disappeared. She returned briefly to the Whitney Museum of American Art from July 29 to 31, with a comically harsh take on family life, Collecting Injustices, Unnecessary Suffering. It’s a musical!
Kroesen aligns herself with Tolstoy (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) and Philip Larkin (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”). Her dialogue and lyrics are for the most part grim portraits of trapped psyches. Kroesen lists among her source material several works by Edmund Bergler, M.D., a Freudian psychoanalyst who authored such discouragingly titled books as The Talent for Stupidity and Conflict in Marriage: The Unhappy Undivorced. Kroesen turns his theory of infantile megalomania into a song: “It’s All About Me.” (Bergler is also known for his book Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life? in which he denounced same-sex attraction.)
For the performance, several large set pieces, created by artist Jared Bark, defined separate playing areas. Each bore hard-to-misread signage, such as “Any Asshole Can Have a Kid Birthing Center” and “Ill Advised Wedding Chapel.” In one “wedding” performed in front of the chapel, the unlucky couple had their hands bound in chains made of furry red fabric. Other characters, in front of the “Child Molester’s House of Pain,” were attached to the set by metal chains. The “children,” played by adults, wore harnesses. Among Kroesen’s multidisciplinary contributors and aging but nimble non-actors were several, like Bark, with whom she had collaborated in the ’70s: choreographer Carol Clements, composer/saxophonist Peter Gordon, performer Sharon Mattlin and composer/pianist Joe Hannan.
In case the visuals prove insufficient to convey Kroesen’s view of family life, listen to her lyrics: “Some parents use their kids and/Each betrayal lasts a thousand years/One hundred caring therapists and a truck/Full of pills won’t take away the tears.”
The audience sat on the long side of the brand new black box Susan and John Hess Family Theater, though the boisterous play seemed to yearn for a rougher space, flimsier sets, and the consecrating smell of a joint burning in the darkness. Program notes describe the play’s style as “casually untheatrical,” which is to say, the opposite of method acting or realism, consistently unemotional, and studiously unstudied. In a series of monologues that punctuated the latter part of the play, the non-actors read from pieces of paper plainly marked “Life Script,” so the audience could see. The “Life Scripts” were omniscient psychological narratives of hopeless persons blindly repeating damaging behaviors in relationships with the wrong people, to whom they are attracted for terrible reasons, often having to do with damage done to them as children by their clueless, also damaged parents. When shown in a relationship, the characters delighted in collecting flags marked “Injustice,” because they could then persecute their partners with more evidence of victimhood. The performers’ artlessness showed how we fail to see these basic problems and self-destructive tendencies, no matter how obvious or plainly stated.
Kroesen and her cast nonetheless beamed happily throughout, at odds with the uncomfortable observations about life that the script bluntly stated. When they broke into a tap dance, the absurd conjugation of the means of presentation and the subject matter reached a curiously joyful climax.
While professing “untheatricality” in line with the art world ideology of antitheatricality, Collecting Injustices harkens back to the long theatrical tradition of pageants and allegorical plays, which stretches back to antiquity. As in painting, virtues and vices were personified on the stage. Kroesen calls her allegories “systems portraits.” Here the characters on stage are named according to their function (Child Molester, Abused, Truly Bad Parent, etc.) or parts of the brain, e.g. Frontal Lobe.
Kroesen studied with Robert Ashley, who featured text in his work, both for the sense of the words and for the music of spoken language. Kroesen means her unambiguous text to be clearly understood exactly for what it says. Kroesen may have drawn her insights from her readings, but I suspect that her script also reflects the lessons learned over a lifetime; as with all of us, too often in retrospect and too late to do any good. She left the art world “when a bunch of life events collided,” she explained in a 2015 interview on Litrio.co.uk. “Manhattan got expensive and my father stopped supporting me. I fell off a horse. My boyfriend left me. All these things happened at once, and so I moved on.” She now runs a hotel in the California desert.
With its humor and energy, Collecting Injustices, Unnecessary Suffering sold its sledgehammer family critique well at the museum, and it could benefit a broader audience, beyond the ideologically like-minded people who frequent the Whitney.
The phrase “family values” — Right Wing code for homophobia, misogyny, perpetual patriarchy, and a disregard for women’s health — too often goes unexamined. Perhaps Kroesen’s gentle fun can do something to change that in this highly charged election year.