John O' Keefe Feature

When John O'Keefe steps into the boxing ring at Coconut Grove's Virrick Gym Saturday at 8:00 p.m., he'll have no opponent. Or rather, no tangible opponent. But for more than an hour, O'Keefe will bob and weave through a host of conceptual challengers that range from his own troubled past to the music of oral communication to the dying corpus of American theater. There are no odds on this particular fight, but inveterate wagerers should be advised that the smart money is on an O'Keefe knockout.

The 51-year-old O'Keefe, an Iowa native who moved to San Francisco in the early Seventies, has been a prominent American dramatist for almost three decades. An incredibly prolific prominent American dramatist, in fact, with more than 30 plays to his name. O'Keefe's work, most of which blossomed in the fertile soil of San Francisco's underground theater community, has incorporated everything from outdoorsy phantasmagoria to squalid madness to B-movie horror. Shimmer, the work that will have its Miami premiere with O'Keefe's Virrick Gym performance, belongs to yet another category, that of the nostalgic monologue. Developed in 1988, Shimmer tells the story of O'Keefe's own youth, of the harsh and pitiless conditions in the Iowa Boys' Home where he was raised, and of his courageous escape from the home.

Alternating between descriptive narration and active dramatics, the adult O'Keefe recalls and reinhabits the shy and inward sixteen-year-old he once was, the boy whose fantasies of rockets and astronauts earned him the derisive nickname Captain Spacey. On a stage stripped bare save for a music stand that holds his script, the wiry and athletic O'Keefe - dressed down in black pants and a white T-shirt - animates the distant past, setting all the scenes, playing all the parts.

In its basic plot, Shimmer seems like a bleak Dickens nightmare carted out to the corn fields, a story of tragic farm-boy anhedonia. The stronger boys pummel the weaker boys with regularity; the headmaster, Mr. White, pummels all the boys with punitive venom. Captain Spacey endures as long as he can, and then he resolves to escape. Freedom, true freedom, dances into reach and then vanishes again. Only its tantalizing scent remains behind.

Like the cathartic real-life memories coaxed from Marlon Brando by Bernardo Bertolucci in Last Tango in Paris - the shameful recollection of attending a school dance with damp cow dung caked on tatty shoes - Spacey's daily pain is hardly tolerable. Unlike Brando, though, Captain Spacey learns the art of the shimmer. Filled with moments of creative and linguistic epiphany, Shimmer speaks from a point midway between Look Homeward, Angel and Van Morrison.

Gary Welch, another boy at the home, becomes John's best friend; under the endless crinoline sky, the two boys capitulate to their own imaginations. Afternoon brawls are observed with an artist's eye; Gary proposes an underground ice world of seals and penguins whose population corresponds one-to-one with the human population above. In one tender and hilarious scene, Gary teaches Spacey to curse, urging him to mutter "shit" and "fuck" and "goddammit" during a brisk game of catch. Profanity, Gary says with an almost shamanistic assurance, is a form of power.

And not only profanity. Throughout the play, O'Keefe luxuriates in systems of meaning, and particularly languages. Generous and liturgical, Shimmer looks back not in anger but in wonder, and it's filled with thrills of newly apprehended significance. As they walk through the early morning to help at the dairy, or to work kitchen patrol, John and Gary imagine that every facet of the phenomenal world - dogs, bugs, the weather, and dirt - speaks to them in a mystic code. This spirit-language is the "shimmer" of the title, and it's an experience O'Keefe treasures above all others.

"Shimmer is about ways of finding meaning in various coding systems," O'Keefe explains by phone from Oxford Junction, Iowa. "It's very much like what the Native American does when he reads signs and omens, when he sees collections of birds that fly by and clouds and their relations to shadows cast upon hills. Those kinds of things are very profound meanings. There's a wonderful sense that you have just previous to being obsessed with sex, the time when the young lad and lass - and specifically lads, since boys mature more slowly - immerse themselves in an exploration of the everyday world. My work went through a long adolescent period of negativity, but in the last few years I'm beginning to make more of a shift toward those moments that honestly are transcendent."

The first spasm of what would eventually become Shimmer went through O'Keefe in 1987, at a dinner in which he regaled friends with glorious tales of his misspent youth. "We were talking about the past and I mentioned how I ran away from a juvenile home that was pretty notorious for its brutality," he says. "They were held spellbound. I had a commission for a work at the time, and I thought, `If people around the table feel this way, then maybe I could extend it into the audience.' I had always felt that autobiography was a short cut, that it was a dodge if I didn't have to worry about inventing. But I came to the realization that since my life was not in the suburbs, there might be something quite different. Most people coming from my background don't pursue art. They pursue burglary."

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