In this post-millennial era, we were supposed to be flying around on jetpacks and colonizing the rings of Saturn while robots did our laundry and worked our temp jobs for us. Instead, the polar ice caps are melting, centuries-old religious wars are still raging and Myspace is probably the coolest thing to happen in the past five years. Makes the future seem kind of lame, don’t it?
Rather than face the inconvenient truth that the world is poised on the brink of environmental disaster or nuclear terror, many people are looking for a little magic, an escape from the dreary and just plain depressing. At the movies, pirates, superheroes, hobbits and elves have provided excellent wartime entertainment. Now, museums are catching up with this trend. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has finally opened its new Greek and Roman galleries, where viewers can rejoice in images of mythical heroes like Achilles and Hercules -- more or less the Spiderman and Wolverine of ancient times.
At the Whitney Museum we have "Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era," where viewers can escape into a land of make-believe called the 1960s. And despite the fact that grumpy art critics have hurried to ruin everything -- we all know there was a war on and the civil rights movement, too -- whenever anyone describes the ‘60s to me, I feel like they might as well be telling me about life on Middle Earth. The concepts of free love and undiluted, readily available LSD sound that foreign today.
And now, the American Museum of Natural History has something even groovier -- "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids." Being an elf-ear-wearing, unicorn-loving girl, I vowed to attend (though I was a bit put-off by the omission of elves from the title). Dressed in said ears, I headed uptown. Maybe there would be a live unicorn!
As is usually the case, leaving my neighborhood was traumatic. I waited at the B subway track but a D came instead. I hopped on, hoping it would "magically" run on the B line. Ten minutes later, it mysteriously stopped in a tunnel for 20 minutes. Like most New Yorkers, when this happens, I automatically think "apocalypse" or "terrorists." Luckily it was neither, and roughly an hour later I arrived at the American Museum of Natural History.
Because it was a Saturday, the place was jammed. Armies of screaming, toy-dinosaur-wielding children and foam-statue-of-liberty-hat-clad tourists bumped into me. I got a ticket and bolted upstairs where I waited in line for the "Mythic Creatures" show.
When I came to the exhibition’s entrance, the guard told me that I needed a special ticket to enter. I only had a general admission ticket. Sulking, I went downstairs and got back in line where I was told the "Mythic Creatures" show was actually sold out. Sure. Clearly the real reason I was being denied admittance was because I’m an elf. I’m certain the curators didn’t want me stealing the exhibition’s thunder. Who would want to look at displays of mythic creatures when an actual elf was walking though the museum?
I considered making an "American Museum of Natural History: Unfair to Elves" placard and staging a protest. But I’d come all the way uptown and figured I might as well enjoy myself. I noticed a poster for the "Frogs: a Chorus of Colors" show, featuring live frogs. Maybe I could lick some toad secretions and hallucinate mythical creatures. But toad secretions can be deadly and I did not want to die a ridiculous death so I relegated myself to the permanent exhibitions.
Observing a diorama of two komodo dragons devouring a warthog, I began to wonder why I was looking at fake animals when I could just go to the zoo and see real ones. Not to mention, the museum was colder than an icebox. The sheer quantity of CFC’s the museum’s air conditioner was generating could ultimately bring about the demise of the human species. Hadn’t they learned anything from the dinosaur bones in their collection?
Frozen and disheartened, I fled the museum. As I walked along Central Park West, I called my friend, Kat.
"I have nothing to write about," I said.
"You should totally review Xanadu, the Musical," she suggested.
I wasn’t sure a theatrical Broadway version of a flopped ‘80s film, still in previews, would be appropriate subject matter for Artnet Magazine.
"It’s all about magic and art," Kat insisted.
"Aren’t Broadway shows really expensive?"
"Wait, let me check." I heard her typing. "Dude, you are not gonna believe this: They have onstage seating for $40. You have to do it."
"It’ll be like I’m in the show!"
"Exactly. Though it might be dangerous. There’s gonna be some roller-skating. Someone might roll over your feet."
I pictured a high-profile lawsuit. I was definitely going. I invited Kat along but she had seats for the much-cooler Skinny Puppy show at the Nokia Theater across the street from the Helen Hayes Theater where Xanadu was happening.
I hadn’t seen the movie Xanadu since it came out in 1980. The only thing I could remember was that it starred Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelley and the dude from The Warriors who looked like Andy Gibb.
At the box office, I bought a ticket for one of the coveted onstage seats, whereupon the cashier handed me a list of rules. It was two pages long. Apparently being an onstage audience member means you have to be really well behaved. It also means there’s no escape no matter how rotten the show is or how badly you have to pee. Terror gripped me, as I have the world’s smallest bladder. I’m sorry to mention this in every article I write, but my small bladder could be the source of my growing agoraphobia.
Despite all this, I went next door and drank two pints of beer before the show. By 7:30 pm, a line of musical theater lovers had formed outside. I am not a theatergoer. The last time I went to a Broadway show, Kat had dragged me to Jesus Christ Superstar because she had a crush on the actor playing Judas. The experience was not unlike hell on earth.
It’s more fun to wreak havoc on Broadway shows than to watch them. I realized this in 2000 when I premiered my musical Rats in front of the Winter Garden where Cats was playing. Dressed in a rat costume, I performed several songs ranging from Someone Put an Ear on my Back, about how scientists were able to grow a human ear on the back of a rat, to Put the Glue Traps Away, where I writhed upon a giant glue trap, pretending to be stuck. Later that year, I also staged a protest against New York City’s cabaret laws (the "no dancing" laws) outside of Footloose, the Musical.
Inside, the perky usher sat me next to a group of strangers and told us to "get ready to party."
The show begins in Venice Beach ca. 1980, where artist "Sonny Malone" is bent over doing a chalk drawing of the nine muses. I had a great view of his ass. Turns out "onstage seating" is code for an "ass man’s dream" because for the next 90-minutes I got to know the backsides of the cast better than I know my own hand.
Dissatisfied with his drawing, Sonny vows to kill himself, always a smart move for a guy who does chalk drawings on the sidewalk. The action then quickly cuts to Mount Olympus where the nine muses (two of whom are dudes in half-drag) are hanging out, apparently with nothing better to do than watch this guy Sonny.
Wouldn’t you know it, but Clio, the youngest of the muses, decides to go and try to save the suicidal artist’s life.
Because Zeus insists that muses must disguise themselves from mortals, Clio pretends to be "Kira," an Australian hottie in roller skates, leg warmers and ribbon barrettes. She skates into Sonny’s life and convinces him to open a roller disco. Now there’s an idea. Suddenly he wants to live.
A lot of wacky things happen. Two other muses, Melpomene and Calliope, have Cupid shoot Clio with love arrows. Zeus gets mad and sends Pegasus to bring Clio back to Mount Olympus. At one point, Zeus is surrounded by his three wives, who ask him to take pity on Clio through a tear-jerking rendition of Have You Never Been Mellow, during which they are joined by actors playing Medusa, Cyclops and a Centaur.
The script sounds like it was written by a combination of drag queens and art stars. I started to think it was a lot like a play I would put on. As if on cue, one of the characters onstage refers to the show as "children’s theater for 40-year old gay people." My own work has been described as "nursery school theater without a nursery school’s budget."
As Achilles’ mother tells the story of her son’s weak heels -- don’t ask -- Clio realizes that she has weak heels too. Because she is wearing legwarmers, Cupid’s arrows could not have affected her. The love she feels for Sonny must be real.
Clio tells Zeus that she would even give up her immortality for Sonny. Maybe it’s because I’d just finished reading Zelda Fitzgerald’s biography, but the last thing I wanted was an ending where a woman gave up anything for a male artist. Why did she have to sacrifice? Why couldn’t he go out and fight like Perseus and get his own damn immortality? It was just another case of a woman settling.
Nevertheless, I cheered along with everyone else when Zeus told Clio and Sonny that Xanadu is "true love and the ability to create and share art." Escaping reality means suspending one’s disbelief long enough to believe that ten years from now, Sonny won’t be an alcoholic who’s cleaned out Clio’s bank account.
The final number was a rousing version of Xanadu, during which we were instructed to snap our glow sticks and get up and dance. Feeling a bit like I’d just performed the 12 labors of Hercules, I stood up, snapped my green glow stick and shimmied next to the muses
REVEREND JEN is an art star, urban elf, troll museum founder and up-and-coming celebrity personality. She is the author of Reverend Jen’s Really Cool Neighborhood and Sex Symbol for the Insane.