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.
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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."
A veteran of numerous theater groups, including San Francisco's famous Blake Street Hawkeyes (which sprung, among others, Whoopi Goldberg), O'Keefe spent the early stages of Shimmer settling on the dramatic form he would use to tell his story. Traditional drama struck him as too alienating, and avant-garde strategies seemed too indirect. Recalling his workshop experiments with monologues, O'Keefe decided to write Shimmer as a one-man play. "The solo piece is something that does or does not fit one's particular predilection," he says. "For me it's a very, very nice way, especially lately, to fulfill my needs. I like to write prose. I don't always like an art form that's dependent on people talking. It seems very artificial. As a person writing a story, I can reach back to an oral tradition. I can find delicious sounds in the words, and at the same time explore gesture and movement."
Other performers have undertaken solo projects, especially lately, when one-person high-wire acts seem to be all the rage. While O'Keefe acknowledges the importance of other solo pilots - Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Garrison Keillor, and John Leguziano, for instance - he sees Shimmer as a very different sort of flight: "I'm a writer first and foremost. The difference, I think, between a playwright and a performance artist, and it's very important to me that people don't confuse the two, is that a performance artist is usually the only person that can perform the particular solo. I doubt that it would be wise for any performer to do a Spalding Gray piece. My work, though, is nothing like Spalding Gray. Immediately because I've got spiky eyebrows and I'm over 40, people group us together. But anyone can perform Shimmer. It's not lost when I die. Other people have performed this work in New York, and done quite well with it." Trumpeting his work as a Bona Fide Theater Piece is not merely an idle boast on O'Keefe's part. Gary Welch is utterly convincing as an independent character, as is Teats Brewer, an imposing black classmate of Captain Spacey's whose physical strength confounds the brutal headmaster. "Teats was an astronaut of beatings," the narrator says, as if that explains everything. And it does.
O'Keefe has bounced from coast to coast with Shimmer, performing it in San Francisco and New York. Last year, he even shimmered in Iowa for a group of juveniles. "Boy, was that fabulous," he says. "They really went for it. For some of the kids in the juvenile home, I realized that I actually had some social content of some merit." And were the Captain Spaceys of the Nineties under the same kind of autocratic rule as their Fifties counterparts? "No. It had all changed. It sounded like they were all at prep school. The girls and boys get to talk to each other. When I was there, we couldn't look at each other."
In the afterglow of Shimmer, O'Keefe developed another solo piece, Vid, which recounts his fall from graduate student to street person. Now he has turned toward even more ambitious vistas, accepting a commission from the Berkeley Repertory Theater to write The Palace of the Dead, a massive drama based on the life of the Bronte family. Brushing the first coats onto what he calls "the biggest canvas I've ever worked on" has proven a formidable task. "When you think about the Brontes and what a wealth of material there is, it's amazing. The thing I really loved about them was that I would drink Scotch and sit in front of movies. I was watching Jane Eyre, the Forties one with Orson Welles, and I suddenly started realizing that it was like the dreams of a hysteric. I got so completely intimidated by their genius; I didn't know if I could go on."
O'Keefe settled his score with the ghosts of the Brontes by writing their death scenes first and working backward from there. Through his intensive research - committing dozens of books to memory - he has developed a strong affinity for the sisters. "Their writings were quite brilliant, wonderful works," he says. "There's a myth about their boring, empty lives, that there was nothing dramatic. But when you get into the topic, you suddenly realize they were these marvelous wild human beings inside. Emily Bronte wrote some of the most beautiful poetry. She challenges Shakespeare. And she died at 30. It is spectacular."
In addition to the Bronte piece - which he hopes will have its premiere in 1993 - O'Keefe has initiated discussion with the Sundance Film Center to turn Shimmer into a film. And not a filmed solo piece like Gray's Swimming to Cambodia or Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, but an actual feature film. And the plays will continue to flow, the course of the river changed by whatever happens to be fascinating O'Keefe this year. For Vid, for instance, he used as a dramatic device the epic structure of video games. "I figured, `Hey, they're giving me some money for a commission, and I can go spend it on video games and get a tax write-off,'" the author laughs. "Video games have such outrageous imagery. It's an endless array of transformations, these inscrutable metamorphoses. It's tremendous fun to watch."
The Miami premiere of Shimmer will mark the first time that O'Keefe has performed in a boxing ring, but he says he's always willing to rise to the challenge of the new. "The point is that the theater is dying because it has lost its sense of vitality," he says. "And part of it is due to people being too conservative and worried about whether the material is going to get audience members. The best artists are those who take over your inner clock. Robert Wilson, for instance. And Fellini always did that for me like few people have. He thumbed his nose, even in his genius, at all the intelligentsia. He just said, `Oh fuck you, baby.' He wasn't afraid to get right down in there and do that stuff." O'Keefe, too, has been doing that stuff, doing it for almost 30 years now. In keeping with the theme of Shimmer, he even has a pertinent simile to describe the creative process, one lifted intact from the adolescent domain of secret thrills, where young children sit transfixed by the voice of a drum. "Creating things is always like grasping at straws. It's like sticking your hand out a window during a bat-storm and seeing what kind of varmint you can bring into a dark room.