It feels fitting that La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, with its storied history at the epicenter of downtown queer performance, would be home to Kink Haüs, the new dance-theatre-drag mash-up conceived, choreographed, art-directed, and starring (among other program credits) by talented Philadelphia-based performance artist Gunnar Montana. In the 1960s, La MaMa and other venues like Judson Memorial Church and the Kitchen (still going strong), as well as the long-shuttered Caffe Cino and Mercer Art Center, were at the forefront of ushering in a free-spirited era of queer performance thanks to performance troupes like the Angels of Light and Les Ballets Trockadero (for a full picture of the scene, Kembrew McLeod’s forthcoming book The Downtown Pop Underground is a must-read).
Montana’s band of gym-toned dance misfits seems simultaneously a natural progression of, and occasionally at odds with, the aesthetic tradition of downtown abandon to which it seems to aspire. The downstairs theatre at La MaMa has been transformed by set designer Oona Curley into a well-appointed Berlin-esque warehouse, with industrial materials juxtaposed with vibrant graffiti murals by Montana, a spiral slide installed on one side for good measure. The scene is meticulously (perhaps too calculatedly) set, with neon drinking cups strewn about in a neatly-curated antechamber where audience members are greeted before the performance. In the restrooms, a performer stakes out a spot on the floor of one stall, moaning in faux distress, provoking titters from mystified audience members.
In other words, despite its delirious pleasures, Kink Haüs feels occasionally too aware of its own edginess. That’s not to diminish its virtues, and especially its cast of uniformly talented performers. The evening begins with a runway presentation as Mr. Montana, outfitted in a worker’s jumpsuit, sheds his workaday drag for a sequined dress and heels, followed by the other neon-haired performers in bright neon costumes. It’s a striking, freeing opening image, one which the piece as a whole carries forward with its loosely-charted themes of sexual mischief and the search for acceptance.
What follows is a dance-burlesque hybrid revue, with various combinations of performers taking the stage in succession. Kink Haüs is most successful when it digs deepest and mines the potential of the human body as living art, as when Dylan Kepp, immediately following a frantic drag lip-sync performance of “Holding Out For a Hero,” is confronted by Montana, who wields his masculinity like a weapon against Kepp’s perceived femme-ness before launching into a sensual, slowed-down version of the song with dance partner Avi Borouchoff (perhaps the most technically skilled in the cast). Stephi Lyneice’s wet and wild expressionistic burlesque is similarly impressive, as is Frank Leone’s deeply-felt solo dance to a soul version of “Dancing On My Own,” performed amidst a sea of faceless mannequins. Jessica Daley dances with verve in and around a bathtub during another segment.
There’s potential here for an effective exploration of sexuality as it relates to masculinity and gender constructs. Montana’s intentions are noble, but the piece as a whole lacks genuine edge despite its provocative title and the inclusion of dildos and partial nudity. Considering the piece clocks in at under an hour, there isn’t time for Kink Haüs to derail, but there is room for it to develop further. Montana’s free-spirited funhouse captures an audience’s attention and moves at a breakneck pace, but though the show has the guts to push an audience’s boundaries, it lacks the teeth to truly leave a mark. It feels like there’s work yet to be done before Kink Haüs lives up to its full potential, but in the meantime there’s no downside to watching this talented group of kinksters do their thing.