Friday, September 29, 2017
Douglas Messerli | "Leaping Out" (on Deborah Lawlor's Freddy)
by Douglas Messerli
Deborah Lawlor, Freddy / Los Angeles, The Fountain Theatre, perfomed at the Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy’s Caminito Theatre. / The production I saw was a matinee on Thursday, September 28, 2017.
Born in 1936, Fred Herko—known by his later friends in New York City as Freddy or Freddie—grew up in a middle-class family in Ossining, New York, known for the maximum security prison Sing-Sing.
Despite their relative poverty, when, as a young boy, Herko began showing remarkable musical talents, particularly as a pianist and flautist, his parents made sure he had lessons and even purchased a grand concert piano for the young prodigy. He later attended Juilliard Arts Conservatory to study piano, but, at the age of 20 determined instead to become a dancer. Herko was awarded a four-year scholarship to attend American Ballet Theater School, and later studied with major dance companies, including Merce Cunningham and James Waring, while helping to develop and found, with dancer/performers such as David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and Yvonne Rainer, the Judson Dance Theater, which, along with the music of John Cage, opened audiences up to entirely new notions of what dance might entail: it could be rubbing one’s thighs together, running in space, etc. etc.
Yet, at the same time Herko danced more traditional modern dance works with James Waring, even choreographing new pieces. He also appeared as a back-up dancer on TV shows such as Ed Sullivan’s weekly broadcasts, with singers such Rosemary Clooney and Pearl Bailey.
Herko, a hirsute beauty, also was a favorite for poets and playwrights, and performed in several off-off-Broadway downtown productions, including Frank O’Hara’s Love’s Labor and Rosalyn Drexler’s Home Movies, while making close friends with young dancers such as the author of this play, Deborah Lawlor, and poets such as Diane di Prima, who wrote extensively of her friendship with Herko.
Extremely active in gay sex, moreover, Herko became a favorite of Andy Warhol, performing in his movies such as Haircut (No. 1), Kiss, The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, and Rollerskate, in which the dancer, on one roller-skate, rolled on bloody feet through the New York streets.
The young dancer was also a favorite in the Factory, showing up for late-night revelries with a group of friends—described as the “mole people” for their subterranean lifestyle and their heavy Speed usage—such as Ondine, Rotten Rita, and Billy Name.
Herko’s long-time boyfriend was Johnny Dodd, who also appeared in Warhol movies and later worked with the Living Theater and in 1964 did the lighting for Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Rumors had it that Herko also had a longtime relationship with the son of a wealthy Hollywood family and was kept for a while by a wealthy member of the De Rothschild family in an Upper West Side apartment. He also had a relationship with Di Prima’s husband, the poet Alan Marlowe.
But his heavy drug use, the injections of Speed and, later, LSD, began to take its toll. By 1964 Herko had begun to miss rehearsals, and his body, so beautiful, began to fail him: he lost teeth and had a “haggard” look about him, his friends declared.
Although, that same year, Waring had cast him in a dance production of Wallace Stevens’ Carlos Among the Candles, by October of 1964, Herko was homeless. Dodd, so he reports, found him in a diner, covered with filth, dancing on the countertop, and offered to take him to his home on Cornelia Street for a bath. Other reports, as Gerard Forde, now working on a biography on Herko, asserts that some report that Freddy simply showed up a Dodd’s door.
And the tale after that is equally conflicted, most agreeing that Freddy took a bath filled with Dodd’s perfume before walking naked into the living room of the flat with the window wide open to a sunny fall day.
Some report that Herko demanded everyone but a few leave the room. But yet many still report they were there to observe Freddy dance to Mozart’s Coronation Mass. Dodd remembers that Freddy danced wildly, at several times charging toward the window. He, himself, wondered whether or not this was to be the “suicide performance” that Herko had long promised his friends. One can only wonder why no one did anything to prevent Herko's actions.
After several thrusts toward the window, Herko leapt, like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, out the window, landing, dead, on the other side of Cornelia Street, exactly one day and 53 years ago from the production I saw—surely not a coincidence.
Di Prima thought she perceived what was close to a suicide note when, in clearing out his personal effects, she found a novel by Mary Renault, opened to the page when the King throws himself into the ocean. But many others argue that Herko was not suicidal, but simply, drugged, wanting to desperately show that he could fly. The planned Stevens' piece had him flying through a window at the end. And, often, in his performances, Herko had leaped off the 20-foot ledge of the Judson School stage without any negative effect.
The later memorial service at Judson Church was so crowded that only a few could get in, and Warhol, soon after, offered another such service at the Factory, showing Herko’s 3 films.
I recount this rather extended mini-history of Herko simply to demonstrate why the Fountain Theater’s co-founder, Deborah Lawlor’s new production is such a natural and has attracted so much Los Angeles attention.
The multi-media-based play, Freddy, looks at him through the lens of a young dancer friend named Shelley (Katie McConaughy, possibly a stand-in for Lawlor herself) and a Present-Day Shelley (Susan Wilder) who together, create most of the tension in the play between the generational facts of Freddy’s life and later perspectives about it.
One must immediately commend this production not only for using multi-media perspectives but for joining up, as many LA productions recently have, with other organizations to achieve their goals.
A few years back I saw a production of Tennessee Williams’ nearly impossible-to-perform Camino Real at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena with many cast members being students of the California Institute of the Arts that was so superb that one immediately recognized the rewards of bringing younger and older groups into the same space. Since then there have been numerous other productions of larger companies, such as the LAOpera, using newer organizations such as Redcat and the Wallis Theater for their more experimental productions to great effect. And one can only commend the wonderful Fountain Theatre choosing to produce their new Freddy at the nearby Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy (Caminito Theatre) with members of the award-winning LACC Theatre performers.
The use of actor/dancers such as Alexandra Fiallos, Jamal Hopes, Tristen Kim, Jacqueline Mohr, Lamong Oakley, Connor Clark Pascale, Justice Quinn, Savannah Rutledge, Brianna Saranchock, Trenton Tabak, and Jesse Trout gives a remarkable sense of youth to this very celebration of the young of his time who Freddy himself obviously worshiped, as well as giving a spirit to the period portrayed in the play.
Director of the great theater company of the Fountain, Deborah Lawlor, who was for years a dancer herself and knew Freddy Herko gives the whole production a further gravitas. This is, in part, her personal vision of the completely charismatic dancer/performer, and, in that sense, it is a kind of special vision which we must admire.
Unfortunately (and I wince, given my admiration of both Lawlor and her company and their commitment to Los Angeles theater in saying this), it is a kind of one-dimensional vision. In her production, instead of portraying what are the obvious complexities of Herko’s sensibility, we see what can only be described as authorial announcements of events: this happened and then and then. Herko’s obviously conflicted life is attributed primarily to his endless sexual activities and, primarily, to his enchantment with drugs. At one dramatic point he even introduces the totally innocent Past Shelley to heroin.
I’m not questioning whether or not that really happened: I’m sure it might have. But the play, focusing as it does on his sexuality and drug habits makes it almost appear that Herko was a two dimensional figure who had little else going for him; we see little of his dance, his theatrical talents, his obvious “charismatic” encounters, nor even his personal sexual relationships with others. We’re simply told what happened, not who he really is or even was, despite the dual perspective. I have to admit that, without any true evidence, that Lawlor’s script even hints that if Freddy hadn’t died of drugs and self-destructive behavior, he might have died, soon after, of AIDS. Lawlor does not say this. It’s just that in this simplistic statement of his problems it leads, unfortunately to that conclusion. In this version, it appears, he was suffering from too much drugs and way too much sex. Even if that may be true, there is so much else to be discussed.
Marty Dew, playing Herko, is an attractive man who can obviously dance well, given the help of Movement and Dance Director Cate Caplin and choreographer Gary Franco. He’s a charismatic figure himself who keeps one spellbound; but, I’m sorry to say, he doesn’t yet have the theater “chops” to really portray what were the obvious dilemmas of Herko’s life.
The play, with Javanese-like puppet figures, does attempt to reveal the young Herko’s childhood where he was encouraged by his family to play the piano. But it doesn’t truly deal with awful truths such as when Freddy revealed to his father that he wanted to change to ballet, he was beaten.
That little fact alone suggests that this man was eternally torn by the projectives of his life. The Julliard School reported that he was unable to “focus,” which means, of course, that he had an inability to commit to the years and years of intense practicing that it might take to become a concert pianist. Herko was clearly a poly-talent, a man with so many gifts that he didn’t quite know how to share them. And, looking back on his history, how could he, given the time in which he lived, possibly find an easy solution? Yes, there were many in his community who were intensely seeking to find multi-cultural ways in which to experience art; but the society at large was in closure, a world in which it was not so easy to cross “over” the many, many boundaries that art and life put up before the individual. One only needs to read Michael S. Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy to confirm it.
Diane Di Prima raged against Freddy’s endless gay encounters, for example, in her poem “Fucking Again.” He was late for another date with her. Herko’s current biographer, Forde writes that “He liked hanging out in sleazy bars.”
What, I might ask, were not sleazy bars in that gay-phobic world? Even in 1969, five years after Freddy’s death, I visited New York bars which anybody in my Iowa hometown (and even in New York) would have described as sleazy, the Stonewall being one of the worst of them!
Freddy was truly seeking love in everything he did. The night before his death he performed on the roof of the Judson Church without a single person having bothered to attend. I’ve had such poetry readings, but I can’t imagine what that might have meant to this fragile man, physically falling apart before his own eyes.
Lawlor’s production is one in which the audience must really “make believe,” must imagine rather than truly experience the characters. For these young actors don’t quite yet know how, despite their obvious talents, to put the darker and lighter elements of their characters into greater relief. Whether they are running through the openly sexual environs of Warhol’s The Factory, or trying to discover their own personal sensibilities, they seem to be simply sleep-walking through their character's lives. Surely the figures they represent might have something deeper to say, to query their own choices, even as they recognize they can no longer make such choices. Only Wilder (as the Present-Day Shelley) seems to be able to understand some of the errors of your younger perception.
And then, there is Herko himself, obviously a sort of Peter Pan-like character, living out his life in a far more delusional “flower-child”-like perspective than the West coast’s San Francisco early 1960s figures. These New York folk, nonetheless, were also innocents gone over the edge into a kind of Never-Never Land from which they simply could not return. It can only be such young people as in this performance than can truly convey a world in which a person like Freddy, in an endless diminutive of his own manhood expressed by his very nick-name, might determine to truly become a Peter Pan, leaping through that Cornelia Street window despite and because of the fact that he knew he was now too old for the voyage. He had already performed as a dancer who falls through the skies in Waring's Icarus, with sets by Robert Indiana.
The great dancer Paul Taylor, also a late-to-life dancer, once told me (when I was 21 or 22) that “You’re never too old to become a dancer.” But I knew he was lying, that no matter how hard I studied (as I did that year at Joffrey Ballet Company) that I had come into to it far too late—despite some very nice comments from my severely authoritarian ballet teachers.
Freddy suggested to Di Prima that he needed Speed to allow him to do what he wanted to do since he come so late to dance. But he clearly misunderstood what Speed really was. As graduate students in the early 1970s, my companion Howard and I—both of whom hated and continue to hate the use of any drugs—did explore with Speed a couple of times to finish writing deadlines. In fact, I wrote a couple of my essays from my Masters’ Thesis on Eudora Welty with the enhancement of Speed.
Yet, we both realized that instead of slowing down time so that we might work against the imaginary clock, if we encountered one another during these times we would suddenly engage in conversations that took hours away from our true work, making us lose what we were actually trying to gain.
Herko wasn’t losing time, but actually gaining it, his body suddenly decaying, his mind lost in a kind of space that took years away from his talented imagination.
His final leap through that window may not have been intentionally suicidal but it was a leap “outside” of reality, “outside” of time, “outside” of his own remarkable contributions—a leap into a reality beyond us. And, in retrospect, it is damnably painful for all those who might have wished he could have lived on to exercise/exorcise his so-many talents.
But, in the end, I beg you, don’t read my piece alone. Go see the work, Freddy, which brought me to all these words. It’s worth seeing and wondering after.
Los Angeles, September 29, 2017