Speaking to The Globe and Mail about the Luminato musical theatre piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the English singer and songwriter Antony Hegarty characterized the relationship between the piece's fellow creators Robert Wilson and the New York-based Serbian performance artist Abramovic as a "collision of aesthetics," rather than a true collaboration. Hegarty, who is the high-voiced Antony portion of the New York-based art-pop group Antony and the Johnsons, could have just as well as been describing Luminato itself – the inspired curatorial riot of performances and ideas that it is. Or we could apply his words to what takes place late each night within the confines of the Berkeley Theatre: The Courtyard Revue at Luminato.
What the Courtyard Revue is, is a wooly and ultimately sweaty salon of spoken word, performance and music, programmed and hosted by Jason Collett, the trim Toronto singer-songwriter-plus. On Monday, worlds came together at the Berkeley lobby and inner patio in curious and occasionally impromptu fashion, often involving cast members of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the production which had just completed its fourth of four performances earlier in the evening. We heard a unique version of poetry, and we saw blues-music artifice. Comedy was done charismatically, near-naked females rocked outrageously and an appearance by Abramovic herself happened as well.
It was variety, it was cross-pollination, it was, in the words of Freddie Mercury, "easy-come, easy-go / a little high, little low."
A mixed and merry crowd applauded Christopher Nell the most. Late in the quickly moving two-hour affair, the German singer and actor – here for The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic – offered Mercury and Queen's epic operatic-pop piece Bohemian Rhapsody a cappella, complete with instrumental flourishes and what have you. It was a dandy rendition, done with an appreciable and appreciated quirky flair.
Prior to Nell's show-stealing, the radiant Abramovic talk-sang a song she had slightly flubbed – we were told – hours earlier in the autobiographical musical that bears her name. Before that, singer Svetlana Spajic and an accordion player clashed Serbian folk music with the artful rock of Montreal's AroarA duo. It didn't always come together so swimmingly; Spajic said as much herself when she halted one improvisation abruptly and began another.
I found Dom Flemons to be a peculiar performer. He's one third of the acclaimed old-timey southern string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. On his own, the New York-based musician refers to himself as an "American songster." Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and wearing suspenders, this young fellow sang in a wide-mouthed way and played cow-rib bones, harmonica and banjo as if modern technology was mere rumour. He had at Ma Rainey's Yonder Come the Blues with theatrical spirit and rural authority. All that was missing was the mule and a corn-cob pipe.
Guest performers change with each performance, but the revue's nightly closing attraction is always Vag Halen, the queer, all-female cover band whose buzz in this town is an ironic one. The art crowd has embraced with gusto the lusty near-nude, alpha-singer Vanessa Dunn and bar-band versions of punk and FM-rock classics. Dunn, all sheer stockings, leather cap and knee-highs, describes the howling, sexed-up storm-throughs of Stooges (I Wanna Be Your Dog), Van Halen (Panama) and Black Sabbath (Iron Man) as performance art. I might call it moderate ability lionized because of the shtick. And as a feminist statement, it is very possible that Vag Halen is being over-comprehended. But, whatever. It's a danceable clash, a scene happening – collision as style. Dig the mix.
The Courtyard Revue at Luminato continues to June 23. 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., $20. Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St., luminatofestival.com.