11th Hour Party People: Monstah Black’s “Hyperbolic!”

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The cast of Hyperbolic!: Shiloh Hodges, Alicia Dellimore, Johnnie “Cruise” Mercer, Joey Cuellar, Monstah Black & Benedict Nguyen (standing). All photos by Peter Yesley.

I think we can all agree that the best thing to do—the only thing to do—when the end of the world is truly nigh is to dress up in our chicest, most avant-garde lewks, throw an epic party and dance until the world ends.

That, at least, is the narrative arc organizing multidisciplinary artist Monstah Black’s performance art extravaganza Hyperbolic! (The Last Spectacle), commissioned by Dixon Place as the centerpiece of this year’s 25th annual HOT! Festival (“The longest-running annual LGBTQ festival in the world.”). The talented and charismatic cast, in addition to Black, are Joey Cuellar, Alicia Dellimore, Shiloh Hodges, Johnnie “Cruise” Mercer, and Benedict Nguyen. Black wrote the show, composed and mixed the score, choreographed the movement and designed the brilliant costumes, which include what looks like a cape made out of bra-padding falsies and tube dresses configured out of multiple pairs of tighty whities.

Benedict Nguyen, Monstah Black & Johnnie “Cruise” Mercer. Note the tighty whitey tube dress on Nguyen!
Benedict Nguyen, Monstah Black & Johnnie “Cruise” Mercer. Note the tighty whitey tube dress on Nguyen!

As the audience enters the theater, the cast lie dead on the floor (in their underpants dresses) with overturned furniture strewn on top of them, red sequined fabric spreads around them to form pools of disco blood. It is 2033 and the last party on earth raged until there was nothing left but fabulous carnage. (The show suggests nuclear Armageddon, but is never clear on the details of the world’s end, which don’t particularly matter to what’s happening on stage, in any case.) The performance begins with time moving backwards and everyone coming back to life to relive their last, wild night.

The end of the world, though, is really more of a framework than a plot, strictly speaking; the more fundamental theme of the work is the ecstatic performance of a certain flavor of queerness. Not by accident does the title include the words “hyperbolic” and “spectacle.” Everything that happens on stage is heightened, from the costumes and wigs to the music to the lighting to the stylized choreography to the goddesses in the video projections to the melodramatic, stagey way the characters speak. Nothing is casual; nothing is naturalistic. Character details are clearly subordinate to the hyperbolic spectacle of fashion and silliness and intoxication and flirting and the playful urgency of some truly impressive voguing-inspired movement.

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“What if the world doesn’t end and we all have to go back to work tomorrow?”

Throughout the show, individual characters break off into short monologues or vignettes, generally about various plans for the party. Black, in full drag, vamps about how to fit a lot of shoes into just one suitcase. Dellimore, in front of a mirror in a kind of boudoir—simple white tape on the floor roughly sketches the outlines of rooms—knowing she needs to look good for the ultimate party, changes her clothes and does her makeup several times. Mercer, in a tour de force, spends the first half of the show in football pants and a plastic Little Richard-style wig prowling the stage and the balcony, leering and grunting through an extended video sex chat via an iPhone on a phallic selfie stick. His parody of masculine sexuality is the only reference to anything butch in the show; the queerness at the heart of Black’s project is not the anodyne, “straight-acting” gayness that gets represented so often elsewhere. These passages spotlighting individual characters contrast with some clever set pieces, bringing everyone together. The choreography effortlessly shifts between chaotic-seeming partying and specific, coordinated, synchronized group tableaux. This is a highly structured show shrewdly designed to seem unstructured.

The overall feel of the performance is something akin to madcap farce, but grounded and tempered by seamlessly-integrated flashes of more serious social and cultural issues. Black has something serious to show us about identity and community that surely resonates with the horrific, violent tragedy in Orlando that took place just weeks before Hyperbolic! opened. Of course, the show was already written when so many innocent people were killed at Pulse, so there is no direct reference, but the resonance between that event and Black’s representation of a final party attended largely by queer/trans people of color is impossible to ignore. The complex layer of humanity running underneath the farce makes it possible for this kind of important connection to both enrich the performance and allow the performance to affect the cultural meaning of queer clubs like Pulse.

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Very early in the show, someone asks, “What if the world doesn’t end and we all have to go back to work tomorrow?” This is played for laughs (and it’s funny), but it also does a lot of work, very economically, toward establishing the tone and deeper questions at play throughout the performance. Taken as a non-literal, non-macabre metaphor—and removed from the context of Pulse—it’s a statement of queer empowerment: the freedom of self-expression, the community, the party, that is what’s vital; the end of the world isn’t the problem, having to melt back into the “normal” life of boring, gender-specific clothes and an office job is.

Hyperbolic! (The Last Spectacle) has four remaining performances: July 15, 16, 22 and 23, all at 7:30 pm at Dixon Place. Info and tickets are available here.