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Performance artists are stigmatized by mainstream culture because they can’t be torn asunder, like art, or shut off, like TV. Yet the witty, antic performance Tim Miller has steered into Woolly Mammoth Theatre seems less provocative than the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and cleaner than a Britney Spears video. It would raise few eyebrows if packaged as an HBO special.
This is the same Tim Miller known throughout the world as a groundbreaking solo performer, teacher, founder of performance-art spaces, and omnibus provocateur. In 1990, Miller received national media attention as one of the “NEA Four,” a gang of performance artists who successfully sued the National Endowment for the Arts when their solo performers’ grants were nixed—in Miller’s case, in response to what his bio describes as “political pressure from the Bush White House because of the gay themes of Miller’s work.” In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned part of Miller’s case because Miller didn’t meet the “standards of decency,” that represent “constitutional criteri[a] for federal funding of the arts.”
“Decency” be damned. Miller has been hellbent on remaining an “activist [and] slutty, queer point of light.” His hour-and-a-half-long memoir, Shirts & Skin, drags you, willingly, through four decades of his life and times. He covers both ends of catharsis, as the ancient Greeks shaped that notion, dramatizing parts of your life as well as his own: the significance of “taco night” at his parents’ suburban L.A. den of WASP propriety; his San Francisco kidnapping by the Moonies and subsequent torment involving broccoli; and the futile search for the two most important things any 20-something who has just moved to New York City yearns for—love and a good apartment. All told with the mastery of a world-class stand-up comic.
Miller stays in character as himself throughout the play, but he isn’t really himself. You recognize as much upon the palpable downshift to his onstage, post-show thank-yous, when his real-life persona emerges. Playing himself works consistently well, except during his more dramatic, serious moments; it’s easy to laugh at someone who is a larger-than-life character, but difficult to empathize abruptly with a caricature. But the bliss of his humor more than compensates for any lack of continuity in the drama department.
Bathed in cool, blue light, the stage bears only a wash basin, clothespins on a line, and a red T-shirt hanging up to dry. Miller storms in like the last popcorn kernel in the hot-air popper, dancing to a rock song louder than what I heard live at the Black Cat the night before. Clad in the uniform of a late-’90s California surfer boy—white wife-beater, necklace, knee-length baggy shorts, and soccer shoes— Miller transports us to each of his life episodes by pinning a shirt, drenched in sentimentality, to the line. As he hangs each piece of experiential dirty laundry up to dry in turn, his full-body paroxysms subside and the music fades, leaving Miller to begin each story.
“I was half in my father’s penis, and half inside my mother.” We all know Miller is supposed to be funny, so everyone laughs politely until the one joke that wraps the entire audience around Miller’s little finger: Imitating his sperm-self, Miller stays afloat by adopting a “stylish queer backstroke.” From that moment, each of Miller’s self-deprecating fag gags elicits exponentially greater peals of laughter as he weaves a survival tale of “one queer little sperm fighting the odds” to find “a dyke ovum.” But it’s not easy being a gay flagellate: the sperMiller gets his first dose of homophobia in the fallopian tube when tough, football player sperm start giving him guff.
Miller, with a gift for physical comedy, walks in place to denote the passage of time and distance, or, graceful as a gazelle, leaps ballerina-style across the stage into the various areas of his life. Traveling along his personal time line, whether gay or straight, you identify with Miller’s stories of growing up feeling like an outsider in a world full of insiders. At school, preparing for shirts-vs.-skins football, Miller survives the notorious “team selection process” in gym class, which inevitably provides little encouragement for “the scrawny, the flabby, the sensitive, the homosexual.” But he achieves one minor victory, finding himself in a huddle with other shirtless boys—an initial inkling of his homosexuality. As Miller acts out this episode, his fingertips appear almost flat as they press lustfully into the backs of his imaginary teammates.
After hitchhiking from L.A. to San Francisco, the 19-year-old Miller finds himself on a gay men’s nude beach being picked up by a socialist student reading Joyce. “I wanted him to think that I was smart, so I tried to use ‘semiotic’ in a sentence,” Miller recalls. Returning to New York City because an ex-boyfriend has “snapped his fingers on a postcard,” Miller elaborates his stories of squatting in multiple buildings, leaving the satisfying impression that he’s telling less than he’s keeping to himself.
The last episode, tinged with Miller’s tales of AIDS-era activism, commences with the pinning up of a T-shirt depicting two male sailors kissing over the words “Read My Lips.” This is the moment you’ve been waiting for: Miller undresses violently, festooning himself instead with clothespins on all those body parts to which you wouldn’t want a clothespin attached. Like Miller’s body, this aspect of the performance is best left to the reader’s imagination. Using his nudity, one of the few things still largely taboo in our society, Miller defies the “standards of decency” that have challenged him throughout his career. Surprisingly, though, Miller doesn’t dehumanize anyone in the process—unless you count the quarterback spermatozoa. CP