July 8, 2005
The Values Horror Show, part of Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival, is written and directed by Argentinean butch-dyke political performance artist, Susana Cook. It is billed as “the real story behind bigotry and terrorism.” It is what it promises, but, strangely, The Values Horror Show is everything it says and nothing like it sounds.
The show begins with a series of slides—short (and mostly familiar) instructions in the vein of: “Beware of suspicious packages” and “Alert authorities if anyone seems dangerous.” The paranoiac instructions on the slides, combined with a tense soundtrack of strings, give an immediate sense of imminent and all-too-possible danger. Soon, following those slides, come other messages, these more religious in nature: “Pray” and “Be rapture ready.” And so the tone for the show is set; the world is a dangerous and strange place.
Just after the slides, a group of women collects onstage, all dressed as men in the army. They discuss, and fight over, religious contradictions, coming to only more contradictions. Emerging from the group, gaunt and muscular in fatigues, Susana Cook almost resembles a long-haired Willem Dafoe. She proves immediately that she has the onstage intensity to warrant the comparison too. Her slightly accented voice is hypnotizing, and her presence magnetic.
The women of the company (who appear throughout) cannot all match Cook’s presence on stage (it is a near impossible feat), but all seem passionate about the material, and each brings a particular strength. But it is when writer-director-performer Cook appears, between scenes, alone onstage, and delivers monologues about everything from political activism to Santa Claus (not as unrelated as they may seem) that this piece is at its best.
The world according to Susana Cook is an interesting one. She lets the audience know immediately that the world is a dangerous place, but Cook interrogates why it is dangerous and who is making it that way. She draws a quick relationship between fear and God, but focuses more on how fear controls us, keeping us paralyzed from revolting against that which is revolting.
What distinguishes Cook most as a performance artist are her generosity and warmth. Though the material is political, and her outrage palpable, she refrains from being confrontational or cruel to her audience. Cook’s work is amiably inclusive. She doesn’t seem to preach, but rather to invite you into her world of concerns. With all the intensity of a terrorist, she also sometimes exhibits the heart of Mother Teresa.
The Values Horror Show feels a bit like a family experience. Technical difficulties on opening night were easily forgotten and forgiven because of how gracefully they were dealt with. The space and the show have a satisfyingly low-tech, living-room feel. Sounds are made onstage; the dressing room is visible. There isn’t a lot of illusion offered here, but illusion-making isn’t the point: disillusioning is.
A plea for activism is especially moving coming from Cook. She describes her experiences as a teenager in Argentina, observing—and suddenly shaken by—her country’s quick change to a dictatorship. It is frightening as she explains how quietly the right wing Christian leadership of her country morphed into the efficient killing machine that left 30,000 of its own citizens missing. When the government criminals behind the abductions appeared in court for their crimes, Cook recalls, “They came with the Bible in their hands.” Her quick comparisons to the Bush administration and the Iraq war don’t feel forced or glib, but seriously heartfelt. Cook’s voice, as one who lived through the genesis and effects of a dictatorship, is not only steady and relevant—it is irreplaceable.
Susana Cook’s introduction to the Patriot Act? Essentially an absurdist dance number to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Santa sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good… Cook’s message is crystal clear. Be good, do as your told, because someone is always watching you. But as she says, tongue firmly in cheek, “Only the terrorists should be afraid.”
And, for the record, Susana Cook is funny. Sometimes hysterically funny. From lip-synching Christmas carols to delivering comic monologues about dog balls, Cook is sharp-witted and her humor quickly turns conventional wisdom about men, women, politics, and “nature” on its head. The last few minutes of the show are somewhat garbled in their imagery, and seem a bit tacked-on, but this doesn’t detract from the overall effect of the show.
Those who shy away from performance art, for fear of being alienated or embarrassed, need not fear to tread here. Cook says, “I’m not going to tell you of the horrors I grew up with, you have your own. We are horror brothers and sisters.” And this seems essential to understanding her work. Cook doesn’t try to trump the audience’s horrors, or to shock them. She sets before them the honest version of how she sees the world, complete with humor and horror. And, she brings it the audience not as her enemies, but as her family. Even those who don’t agree with what Cook has to say are likely still to find themselves listening.