I wonder if it was an oversight or a stroke of curatorial brilliance. None of Abrons Art Center’s theaters are particularly accessible to people with physical disabilities, but the Underground Theater, host to Marissa Perel’s (Do Not) Despair Solo, is particularly inaccessible. When Perel (pronounced Peril, and used as a nominative) first appears in the space, they explain that they would not attend a performance in this space were they not performing it; then their collaborator Elliott Cennetoglu, in the first of many acts of service work, carries them downstairs from the theater door to the stage.
(Do Not) Despair Solo introduces itself as a lecture performance, and also as an attempt to communicate what it is to be, as they term it, a body in pain. The lecture element falls away quickly. Apart from a brief moment at the beginning (a hilarious reading of a tautological Wikipedia entry on ‘Choreography’), the piece is more demonstration than lecture. Perel states early on that the disabled do a tremendous amount of labor on a daily basis to ensure the comfort of us, the able bodied (easily identified because we were able to walk down the stairs to get a chair). As such, the evening will consist of a series of reversals: participatory acts of service work undertaken by the audience to rearrange, for a moment, this imbalance.
Some of these actions engage with the intersection of Perel’s disability and sexuality. In one moment, Cennetoglu ties Perel with a rope harness, binding that runs across their chest and crotch; the audience is invited to pull on rope ends of the harness if they identify with certain quotidian experiences of disability. Later, Perel enlists two audience members to lick their boots and dildo-shaped cane, as they speak to us. Questions surrounding dominance and submission emerge, and the complex situation of being a physically disabled and assigned-female-at-birth human who seems to so genuinely relish the feeling of being a top.
In other moments, audience members hold objects for Perel, act out a conversation with an exploitative dance curator, or simply wait to be examined while Perel and Cennetoglu discuss what they might have for lunch. Interspersed with shaky a capella renditions of original songs, it is in turns disturbing, tender, and darkly hilarious. Maybe it really is a Despair Solo, with only a parenthetical directive to the contrary—but the piece remains gentle yet unyielding in its ministrations, a sort of psycho-physical journey to how Marissa Perel experiences being a body in pain.
Photo by Scott Shaw