It’s hard being a hippie these days. As someone who spent his formative years in sandals and tie-dyes, I’ve always felt more of an affinity for the art and attitudes of the late 1960s than the Reagan ’80s I grew up in. While Don Draper and the Mad Men crew may be moving into the Summer of Love, here in the real world “peace, love and understanding” seem in short supply.
In the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombing, it was gratifying to see so many families around Lake Eola for April 20’s Earth Day celebration. But everywhere else I turn this week, I see reminders (from congressional gun-control cowardice to presidential poison pen-pals) that the hopeful spirit of the ’60s is long dead, replaced by terror and ennui.
Perhaps that’s why I was so pleased to attend last Friday’s HYPER-Bolic, Orlando artist Jessica Earley’s hyper-personal, one-night-only theater piece.
Just the description alone – “an experimental performance by Jessica Earley featuring hyperbole, puppetry, dance, awkwardness, honesty and video projections to tell a story about heartbreak and healing” – was enough to conjure images of the kind of experimental performance art that was all the rage 40-plus years ago, but too often earns eye-rolls from today’s cynical audiences.
“Hyperbolic” seems like the last adjective one might apply to the demure Earley, who I previously knew mostly through her visual art and past collaborations with performance artist Brian Feldman. But this aptly named show gave full-throated voice to the pain – sometimes deeply heartfelt, sometimes amusingly parodic – induced by a romantic breakup she experienced last year.
The hourlong performance, mounted on a white-sheeted stage at Ivanhoe Village’s the Venue, began with a short shadow-puppet play illustrating hyperbolic cliches about love, then launched into multimedia vignettes skipping randomly through the five stages of grief.
First Earley warbled a verse from “The Greatest Love of All,” then she masturbated with a giant sewing needle while arguing with an oversized button that only said “So?” She wrapped herself in a blanket emblazoned with a life-sized image of her ex, then an echo machine was used to simulate the drone of a black hole with a human voice.
One especially provocative segment juxtaposed an oversized dreamcatcher in which Earley was ensnared (with the help of backup dancers Lindsay Smith and Stephanie Lister) against footage of Hitler, which Earley later said represented the impossibility of human perfection. The choreographic center of the evening involved Earley mimicking the poses of stereotypically happy couples, gesturing desperately to keep pace with the prerecorded video of herself projected on the back wall.
The funniest portions reflected on the uneasy role social media plays in our modern love lives, with Earley seeking solace from artificially intelligent chatbots, virtual Ouija boards and clueless text messages from well-meaning acquaintances.
You’ll notice this doesn’t read like a typical review, because HYPER-Bolic is almost impossible to critique. Individual elements (such as singing, dancing and acting) weren’t professional in any traditional sense, but that unguarded awkwardness is what makes Earley so engaging. The analytical side of me wants to pair her with a director to help sculpt a more focused production. But instinctively I understand that would risk ruining what is wonderful and unique about her work, which has a homemade fragility. My critical ambivalence could also be gender-related; women I spoke with afterward said they empathized very strongly with the erratic emotions expressed.
Ultimately, Earley proved there is a market in Orlando for such earnest, intimate art by drawing one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen at the Venue. And while the parked cars outside were awash in Stardust and WPRK bumper stickers, there was no hipster snark in the loving standing ovation at the end, as Earley stood naked – emotionally and literally – before them. (I suspect 80 percent of the crowd were Earley’s friends, Facebook or otherwise, as she financed the show’s modest budget with an online fundraising campaign.)
In an impromptu post-bow Q&A, Earley said she hopes to take the show to San Francisco in June. It’s hard to think of any city that might be more appreciative of Earley’s intimate emotional exhibitionism than the home of the Summer of Love.