Down In The Mouth (1991)

Story, choreography, direction and costume design by John Kelly
Music by Gaetano Donizetti and Arvo Part
Set design by Huck Snyder; lighting design by Stan Pressner
Wigs by Danilo
Produced by Liz Dunn for John Kelly Performance and the Serious Fun! Festival. Premiere: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, August 1, 1990
WITH: John Beal (Grapple); Kyle de Camp (Rage); John Kelly (Forge); Marleen Menard (Sympathy); Byron Suber (Tally); and Vivian Trimble (Tea)


Wake up people. That’s how I was feeling. A new decade, but no sign of a reprieve. I was ricocheting between a wild euphoria and then total outrage and frustration, my emotions welling up like a roman candle stuck in a can of sterno, with no possibility of lowering the heat. When I’m about to create a new work, I deliberately check in with myself to see if there is any urgent personal or social agenda I feel compelled to explore, and the characters I portray are often a direct outgrowth of this process. In the summer of 1990, I was angry and afraid. My feelings were pressing inside me like a burning ember dying to get out. I felt I had a mission. I needed to explore my relationship to my status as part of a “high risk group.” Survival.

I envisioned an ensemble of finely drawn characters, each representing an aspect of the archaeology of the AIDS epidemic. My cast included a character named Rage, a woman in heavy boots and tattered eighteenth-century French revolutionary every woman dress, the instigator and activist, the constant; Tally, an accountant and beauracrat, the recorder of the death toll; Grapple, an Einstein-like man representing science and its attempts to deal; Tea, an apathetic, well-off woman, untouched by and decidedly unaware of the plague; Sympathy, her lunch pal; and Forge, a man afflicted, struggling with the plague.

After a series of interactions, and at the end of Down in the Mouth, the characters lip-synch the famous sextet from the Donizetti opera Lucia Di Lammermoor. To the roar of the applause from the canned live 1955 Maria Callas / Herbert Van Karajian recording, the six of us held hands and stood in a line downstage, facing the audience, our mouths open in the shape of the final note. I had just spent six weeks at a healing center in Arizona, and I had learned kundalini yoga as part of my therapy. In kundalini yoga, there is a special way of breathing, a sharp intake of breath that shakes the body in a spasm. The cast stood there, holding hands, our bodies shaking in the kundalini manner, looking at the audience. The recording finished and we still stood there, holding hands, shaking. The piece ended in a dead silence with this human rope-like life-line, vibrating, jerking and shaking in fear, in rage, in all our conflicted emotions, as the great curtain of Alice Tully Hall closed very slowly.

I staged this as a deliberately awkward and exposed moment. I wanted to mess with the audience’s expectations. I wanted to arrive at a less predictable place. The piece was about the messy aspects of being alive and staying alive. In this moment, we’re alive, period. And I felt that was enough. We held onto each other, we bowed to a polite and anemic applause, punctuated with a fervent bravo or two. And I was so proud of the work we had created.

© John Kelly 2019