The Escape Artist
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
April 22, 2011
On an altar below a triptych of projection screens, a man in white reenacts falling from the sky. Heaven is a trapeze, Hell a hospital waiting room. This is a true story: during a trapeze lesson in 2004 writer/performer John Kelly slipped and landed on his neck.
The Escape Artist dramatizes fifteen hours of pain and fear as Kelly waits in the hospital for a diagnosis. The doctors can’t dispense medicine or even water until they discover the extent of his injury. Knowing any move could mean paralysis or even death, Kelly forces himself to remain absolutely still. The winner of two Obie awards, the 2010 Ethyl Eichelberger award, and the creator of numerous intensely physical works, his life as a performer flashes in front of his eyes. At the time of the accident, Kelly was creating a piece about Caravaggio and struggling to feel a connection to the Italian Renaissance painter. In the hospital, he realizes they both believe in “art no matter what.”
A lithe man with an articulate body, Kelly performs the majority of the piece flat on his back, singing intricate songs written with Carol Lipnik and covers of modern pop songs. The relentless parade of images is designed by Jeff Morey: doctors, nurses, staged tableaus of Caravaggio’s painting, Kelly’s own face as his lies on the table, and shot after shot of skies and ceilings, the world seen from the perspective of someone lying on the ground. The most memorable moment is an image of a doctor sliding a latexed finger into Kelly’s anus, while projected on an adjacent screen is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.”
This is the kind of performance he would have been restricted to had his accident been just a little bit worse. Chilling as that is, the amount of time Kelly devotes to Caravaggio siphons energy from his personal journey. In the piece, Kelly never doubts his art, and it never abandons him. He is the man who rose from the grave, and not the doubting Thomas. But after such a close brush with death and immobility, his certainty in the God of art feels somehow painted on.