Imagine if Judy Garland produced a musical version of Oedipus Rex, and chose as its star a mustachioed bald man in a skittle printed kimono. If you can summon up this twisted yet tantalizing image, you can gain some insight into what it was like attending Chris Tanner's Football Head: Tales of Shame and Humiliation at The Club at La MaMa.
Part cabaret, part burlesque show, part Masterpiece Theater, Football Head is an invitation into the dark and fabulous brain and past of Chris Tanner. The over the top raconteur takes a page from David Copperfield (the book, not the famous illusionist, though Tanner's flamboyant and unapologetic stage presence is as flashy as any magician practicing sleight of hand): he begins with the story of his birth, proudly showing off his head, which is indeed football shaped, and revealing that his misshapen dome was a result of his being born serval months premature. This physical oddity, if you will, spirals us into a series of tales from Tanner's formative years, from birth until about age fifteen, all told from a plush, velvet upholstered armchair perched in the center of a small stage with a runway jutting out into the cafe style seating. Swaths of glittery fabric tent us all in, and huge bulbs frame Tanner, giving the appearance that he's sitting in front of a huge vanity. And he's definitely ready for his closeup.
Two back up singers, called "Do-Wop" girls in the program and played brassily by Gina Bonati and Kaylin Lee Clinton, embody the characters and images that swirl through his stories: family, bullies, friends. Oversized paper mache props add a grotesque comedy to the stories and allow the women to also become swans, rainbows, and pirates (oh my!). We see emphasized the things that must have loomed large in Tanner's young psyche: cigarette holders, sky-high bouffants, pink, frilly, dresses, trays of martinis.
The flamboyant Bildungsroman, which takes moments between tales to break into show-tunes, is funny, garish, and over the top. But perhaps most importantly, it isn't an innocuous, safe performance, and Tanner certainly isn't afraid to go into some pretty dark stuff. He is a dangerously impish and charming story teller, and the audience is drawn into his elaborately recreated and reconstructed world. From sweet sixteens, to rape, to war, to prostitution, it is up to us as viewers to decide what the truth is and what may be embellished fiction -- fictions which, in another time, may have allowed a gay man to survive, such as when Tanner tells us an R-rated story that involves an STD and subsequent web of lies to shield his mother from the truth. For Tanner, being young and gay in a bygone era meant being a quick change artist, creating magic out of paper mache.
It's like a therapy session, if Freud had a bedazzler. Tanner is, in a way, both patient and therapist, revealing the dark recesses of his mind and past and attempting to order them, work through them, connect them for us, to help us, and himself, understand how he is who he is today.
Football Head made me laugh, cringe, and sometimes want to cry. Tanner's show, especially as it wickedly helped to kick off Pride Week in the city, reminds me of the "It Gets Better Campaign," which gained popularity in the face of horrific bullying among children and teens. Tanner shows us that indeed it does get better, and part of that means getting to tell your own stories, to "embrace the power of the freakdom," as he says. And then you get to open your piano, sew sequins onto your favorite suit, and create your own world.