Art

The Quirky Invincibility of Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free

Poster for Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free
Original poster for “Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free” (1982), Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

The Squat Theater, an itinerate group of mostly Hungarian political theatre emigrés decamped to NY in the 1970’s, barreling and slaking their way through the uber-outré squalor of an infrastructure challenged city, then self-imploded circa 1985. Actors Stephen Balint, his daughter Eszter Balint (who appeared as cousin Eva in Jim Jarmusche’s “Stranger Than Paradise,”) Anita Koos, Peter Berg, Eva Buchmuller, Sheryl Sutton, and others made it their home, attracting comrades to their messy, chaotic, and funny ragtag experimental theatre building at 256 West 23rd Street (now a Cineplex). Their presence was so outrageous the New York Times accused them of “abusing” 23rd Street, in spite of the bankrupt, crack addled, graffiti’d downtown flavor of that era. Squat blurred if not wiped out the lines between reality and fiction, leaving a music, performance, and film legacy now historically obscure. That mistake was rectified, at least partially, by the showing at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) of the most American of Squat Theatre’s films, “Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free,” whose play of the same name snagged an Obie Award for best new American play in 1981.

Eszter Balint, Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Eszter Balint, Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

The film/performance includes both video documentation of an actual theatrical performance, as well as the collective’s screwy film, and is an indictment to every MFA candidate of a list of best practices of what not to do: decide on your content through anarchistic shouting matches where the loudest most obnoxious idea wins; combine film stock of black and white and color, in no particular order for no rhyme or reason; speak in thick, unintelligible accents; recite hard core pornography as poetry; show live births so anatomically correct they could double as third year medical school texts; enact army chaplains giving wounded soldiers blow jobs; include jagged, out of focus pans and cuts in your final film presentation, and last but not least, make your children into characters whether they want to participate or not.

John Lurie and "Unidentified Flying Dancer" in front of paper mache baby with TV eyes, Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Peter Halasz and “Unidentified Flying Dancer” in front of paper mache baby with TV eyes, Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

An “unidentified flying dancer” wearing headphones from the pre-Sony Walkman era performs a belly dance while a weird guy uses a penis pump to enlarge his already big stiff one. “Flying dancer” teaches refugee Eszter to dance, weird guy hits on flying dancer. She beats the crap of out him while rapping poetry about black scorpions in a Blondie “Rapture” style. Squat also shot footage at the futuristic, now defunct TWA airport terminal pre-Homeland Security, with men in spacesuits wearing belts displaying TV images. The footage changes into an infomercial for the fashion designer Patricia Fields, switches to rare-at-the-time full frontal male nudity, then cuts to policemen casually talking about interracial dating. Remember, this was back in early 1980’s.

Nico singing "New York, New York" Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Nico singing “New York, New York” Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

“Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free” is a late 20th century vision of New York as a pop media genre redefining spectator space with roots in European Dadaism, theatre of the absurd, post-Cold War exhaustion and angst — but it’s also really funny. The film concludes with a twelve foot by three foot papier mâché baby robot whose eyes project a film of the Velvet Underground’s female star Nico singing what has to be the most droll rendition of “New York, New York” in existence. As one former member reminisced during the EAI screening, “Everyone had a role. The Squat was less volatile than the Living Theatre and a lot more fun than Grotowski.” Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free played at Electronic Arts Intermix (535 W. 22nd Street, 4th Flr., Chelsea, Manhattan) on November 6th in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, where an installation by Squat Theatre is included in the exhibition Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980 through February 2, 2014.

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