Documentation of Robert Watson, "Exhuming Johnny". Image credit Valentina Pucarelli.

The following is a review of Exhuming Johnny, devised and created by Robert Walton and Company was shown at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 19, 20 and 21, 2019. It was one of nine performances commissioned as part of the Goat Island archive-we have discovered the performance by making it. A work in progress of this performance was presented on February 21, 2019 at the Hyde Park Arts Center as part of the IN>TIME festival.

Over the course of 90 minutes using video, live and recorded sound accompanied by rigorous body movements, four performers pull the audience back in time. A drumroll outside the Sidney R. Yates Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center alerted the audience that the performance is about to begin. Taking a cue, the audience then followed two performers: Jean Grant who was holding a VCR tape delicately placed on a purple cushion and Callum Grant playing a marching band drum, into the performance space.

Exhuming Johnny, is one of nine performances commissioned by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) as part of the exhibition Goat Island archivewe have discovered the performance by making it. In addition to a changing archival display of performance company Goat Island’s past work, a section of the Sidney R. Yates Gallery has been transformed into a to-scale re-imaging of the group’s former rehearsal space—-a church gymnasium. It is in this space that international artist and performance companies have been invited to respond to nine major works that Goat Island produced between 1986 and 2007. Robert Walton, a conceptual, multi-media and performance artist currently based in Melbourne, Australia, has been commissioned to produce the third performance on the schedule. Already familiar with Goat Island’s work, this is his second production inspired by their previous work, It’s an Earthquake in my Heart (2013) that he directed at the Victorian College of the Arts. There is a feeling of heightened tension that Walton’s directing brings to the stage. In his own work, he is often prodding realities and blurring boundaries between different mediums to draw the audience into the performance. It seems fitting he would be the one to work on Can’t Take Johnny to the Funeral (1991).

Documentation of Robert Walton, “Exhuming Johnny”. Image credit Andy Yau.

Once the audience members have been ushered, by two other performers Sebastian Robinson and Chris Mosier, both dressed in beige jumpsuits to match those of Jean Grant and Callum Grant, the actors come together on stage to create a science fiction-esque narrative with the matching suits and clipboards in hand. We the audience, especially front row members have been accounted for in the show. Each of us had a role to play– the same audience members from the original performance in 1991 at The Masonic Temple in Portland, Oregon– in the 2019 edition of the performance. Our presence supplements the way in which they set up the premise of the show which is one of the more successful elements of this production. Placed on the floor in front of each chair that is closest to the stage, there is a close-up photograph of an audience member, printed and made into a placard, from 1991 which present-day audience members are invited to hold up in front of their faces. Through a roll call of audience members past, giving each of them a name, story, and purpose to the narrative they establish a language through which members of the audience can interpret their actions. Introducing us is the first step they take to go back in time, each description paints a 90s picture, be it clothing or lifestyle choices. At some point in the performance, Robinson and Mosier request an audience member to give the doorman who let Princess Diana out the door a message, as she leaves the Ritz Hotel in Paris, shortly before a car crash that leads to her death. The message is “wear a seatbelt,” and just like that, the audience is being pulled back in time. Further back, Jean Grant, LA-based actress, and filmmaker reflects on a video from her childhood where she is playing with her sister. She apologizes for things she told her sister then. The intensity with which her expressions and voice convey both the terror and physical toll traveling back in time can take on a person stitches softness into the performance.

In the original performance by Karen Christopher, Matthew Ghoulish, Greg McCain and Timothy McCain, directed by Lin Hixson, a document in the archive describes, “execute exhausting movement drawn from popular culture, personal experience and observations of sports and machines.” Jim Hiley of BBC Radio describes the movements to include, “Rugby and Lacrosse, square dancing, water polo…judo, fireman’s lifts, piggyback, tantrums…” During Walton’s response, references to the original work are made using video. Perhaps this is the part where the performance struggles to make relevant those movements to the audience members of the present. The narrative is most compelling when each of the cast members shares a memory or message they would leave for people in their lives from the past. Their bodies are active and hypnotizing in the sequences of traveling back in time as they alternate and repeat their parts. Jean Grant sweats it out with her aerobic style sequence and singing to rhythms provided by the drums, Chris Mosier in a grave voice talks about life in the ocean to eerie music, and Callum Grant obsesses over salt. In this way, each of them take turns building tension into the plot.

Documentation of Robert Walton, “Exhuming Johnny”. Image credit Valentina Pucarelli.

Callum Grant, a member of the Blue Man Group in Chicago and Chris Mosier, a professional duathlete and triathlete, bring the rigor and tense bodywork into the piece. For a brief moment Callum Grant, after Jean Grant’s confession, also shares words he wished he could have told his grandmother during the crew’s travel back in time. It’s a short vulnerable moment quickly kneaded out with intense movements referencing the original performance. Walton promised the audience of a remix of Goat Island of the ‘91 with Twin Peaks of ‘91 in the show description. Using a selection of archival videos, Assistant Director Catie Rutledge plays with different video feeds and collages them in real time on the screens for the duration of the show. In addition to having two projector screens on two corners of the stage, there are also video cameras set up in corners to film the performers in real time. During the performance, Sebastian Robinson who brings the wit to the stage, follows Jean Grant with a handheld video camera as she re-performs actions from a scene of Twin Peaks (Season 1, episode 4) where character Audrey Horne is opening a door, letting herself in, opening another secret door, entering, closing the door, and eavesdropping into a conversation at the Great Northern Hotel. Both these feeds, the scene from Twin Peaks and Jean Grant enacting, are collaged together on screen blurring the two mediums and enmeshing them into one live performance.

Documentation of Robert Walton, “Exhuming Johnny”. Image credit Valentina Pucarelli.

Much like a street play, the actions and occasional dialogue were provocative and aimed at inviting the audience in rather than keeping them separate and passive. Each actor took turns, finishing each other’s thoughts narrating and describing what was about to occur; blurring what is fact and fiction by alternating between narrative styles. At times there is a linear first-person narrative, on occasion generous period description, and at other times lots of implied time traveling. Punctuated with sound, some recorded and some live produced by Tom Benko, another member of the Blue Man Group Chicago, the passage of time on stage becomes pulsating. As the performers whirl back in time, they finally land on a stage in 1991 where members of the Goat Island Company are performing a sequence from Can’t Take Johnny to the Funeral on the projected screen and Walton’s crew performs the same routine at the Cultural Center, slightly faster, in tandem. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end to the production and this is nearing the end.

Documentation of Robert Walton, “Exhuming Johnny”. Image credit Valentina Pucarelli.

According to some of the archival material on display, the original performance from 1991 “explores bliss and terror in the modern world. The piece takes as its starting point the way society destroys its children by making them inheritors of real and imagined violence.”

In contrast, the response by Walton and company leaves behind the realization that the real world right now is warped, magical, confusing, mysterious, and vulnerable all at once and we are all experiencing it together not separately.  The ending fills the room with a nostalgia and wistfulness for a long-gone past.

“Can we all live in a world where we can agree? No, it’s not in heaven, it’s here,” Robinson tells the audience in a monologue in the last few minutes before they take a bow. I wish, Robinson, I wish, because shortly after the performers left the stage the audience left too.