Review: Büer’s Kiss Ups the Ante for Comic Readings
Carl Antonowicz and crew craft an enjoyable evening of death, disease, and suffering — plus foley effects and comics.
Picking up where The Glassblock left off last year and as part of a Recital sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2017–2018 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Büer’s Kiss by Carl Antonowicz, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelist Jason Baldinger, and guest panelist Maggie Lynn Negrete. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
Translating the drawn comic from the page to the stage is not an easy task, but cartoonist Carl Antonowicz alongside performers Joanna Becker and Ryan Haggerty admirably rise to the occasion with Büer’s Kiss, an intriguing, often humorous and more often horrifying tale of othering.
Set in a mythical world partly based on the medieval Kingdom of Aragon, the protagonist Felecia, one of a few characters voiced by Becker, is in the midst of being buried alive. Her crime is contracting a leprosy-like disease, referred to as Büer’s Kiss — the “kiss” of the demon Büer, referenced in texts like the Lesser Key of Solomon and Dictionnaire Infernal. Luckily for her sake (and for the sake of the story), she crawls out of the grave and, instead of death, is forced into exile, leaving behind a husband and a home. After walking through the woods, Felecia finds a sympathetic community in a makeshift town of people also afflicted by the disease. Once in the town, Felecia meets characters that act as vessels for belief structures, shrugs off the unwanted attention of an entitled man, and attempts to stop a disastrous plot.
The audience sees this story play out in two parallel views. On a screen, floating above the stage, panels of an inked comic fade in and out, often in threes, setting the pace for the story. Below the screen, Antonowicz, Becker, and Haggerty run between five folding tables covered with an assortment of sound-making devices. Speaking into their wireless microphone headsets, the trio act out 10 characters, each with a distinct accent, while creating the rich tapestry of foley sound that accompanies the entire production. Clapping two plastic cups into a bin of stones replicates the sound of horse hooves. The sound of a river is created with a plunger and a box of water. A wooden stick smacked into a cantaloupe or a head of lettuce accents the visual of a skull being split. Part radio play, part live reading, part comic book perusal, this complex navigation of actions is executed well, and the live foley sounds make for an endlessly engaging visual.
After some adjustment on the audience’s part, the two modes of visual communication work as a complementary set. The projected illustrations provide a level of detail — the scenery, the dress, the overarching, mysterious tone — that the onstage actions cannot provide. The performers give added depth to the characters through facial features and posture, movement, and voice. Of the three performers, Joanna Becker extracts the most life out of her characters, supplying them with nuanced mannerisms while using the stage in a dynamic way.
The balance of screen and stage works well throughout the performance until the climax where each performer is forced to act out two or more characters in the same scene. Seeing multiple characters emanate from one performer, standing in the same position, forces the audience to work a little harder to keep up. As a panel, we thought that another performer or two could help ground the characters during the more chaotic sections, but at the same time, we found it very entertaining to see the performers sweat a bit, attempting the complicated dance of inhabiting multiple characters while still making horse sounds, popping bottle corks, and driving blunt objects into unsuspecting fruit and veg.
The heart of Büer’s Kiss is a story about oppression and prejudice. The most glaring embodiment of this theme is the townspeople’s treatment of those blessed with Büer’s curse. Treated as a parallel example, in a subplot, a knowledgeable soldier, Olivier, faces harassment for his sexual preferences. Riding with two other soldiers, both of whom are incompetent, the harassment takes the form of jibes and jokes at Olivier’s expense, but also the discounting of his astute observations and suggestions — the only thing keeping their party on track.
In both cases, the ostracized often have some amount of agency, which is refreshing given the dire nature of their circumstances. Olivier, fed up with his riding partners’ bullying, reproaches his tormentors and leaves the party. In doing so, he sows his companions’ demise as they are too incompetent to make it out alive. For those with Büer’s curse, exiled, the outcasts find each other and create their own society, a version of a utopia where physical appearances are not judged.
The world that Antonowicz creates is a microcosm of medieval belief systems. The then-new Christianity is represented by community’s spiritual leader, seated, immobile in a pit, delivering sermons on the benefits of Büer’s “kiss” — redemption through punishment. Isolated in a wooded house, a moor delivers a sermon on the old gods — read as pagan beliefs. Henriette, the doctor/scientist who is also the catalyst for this story’s climax and an outlet for Antonowicz’s hamfisted French accent, is a nihilist, wishing death on her persecutors and anyone else that comes close to stopping her. Felecia, who never gives in to any of these systems, acts as our guide, literally walking us to each character to hear what they have to say. The audience learns about the world as she does. This web of beliefs reveals itself slowly, organically over the course of the performance, creating layers of complexity to what, on the surface, seems like a fairly straight-forward plot.
Tempering the darkness and dread that creeps over this world is a wide spectrum of humor. If dark humor is your thing, Büer’s kiss is paired with a “favor” in that the afflicted do not feel any pain. This sets up a number of instances where characters are injuring or losing limbs without knowing it. Funny, right? On the other end of the humor spectrum, there is a lot of toilet humor — lowest common denominator material that garnered big laughs from the opening night audience. Somewhere in the middle are injections of blunt honesty from characters — jarring in that Steve Martin way where the audience responds with an unanticipated laugh.
This staging of Büer’s Kiss is considered a work-in-progress. The drawings in the second half weren’t completely finished — but the review panel did appreciate the detail of the shading in the pencil sketches. The sound mix could be slightly improved — the crushing of the tomato while visually gooey and enticingly messy was hard to hear. After a few more performances, pacing will naturally improve and create a better rhythm for the performance. But overall, Büer’s Kiss is a tightly-constructed, elegantly produced comic reading that balances darkness and humor, static image and movement, and past and present concerns. And even though nearly every character meets some sort of demise by the story’s end, our panel enjoyed the performance thoroughly.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Maggie Lynn Negrete is a multidisciplinary artist and designer specializing in illustration, zines, and hand-lettering with work that explores femininity, community, and the occult with aesthetics influenced by 19/20th century illustration, psychedelia and my heritage of printers. An important part of Negrete’s practice is as an educator, focusing on elevating youth voices and promoting civic engagement through zines, storytelling, and typography.