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In Performance: Joseph Keckler, Train With No Midnight (Prototype Festival)

Train With No Midnight
Joseph Keckler
Prototype Festival at HERE
January 5-13, 2019

Do you remember the 2012 apocalypse?

Joseph Keckler, silhouetted against a stuttering cloud of fog, begins his dark, off-kilter, hauntingly gorgeous cabaret by posing this question to the assembled audience. I don’t remember, of course, and nor does anyone else, because it didn’t happen. What I mostly remember is the hype, both wild-eyed and eye-rolling, leading up to this doomsday event supposedly foretold by the Mayan calendar. What Keckler remembers, which is far more complex and interesting, is the indefinable feeling that lingered after any such event failed to occur: a resignation, almost a disappointment. A sense, even, of loss.

The apocalypse that wasn’t is the first in a series of what Keckler calls “impactful non-events,” which he explores through story and song over the course of an hour. These range from highly personal histories (a pet name left unspoken by a lover) to curious historical footnotes (the cancelled original engagement of Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Met) to occurrences of global significance (Hillary Clinton’s non-election). Keckler has a unique deadpan charisma, equal parts louche charm and indefatigable weirdness, that finds a perfect match in this material. With three fellow musicians and a team of designers all tuned precisely to his wavelength, Keckler creates an enveloping atmosphere of the strangeness and precarity of everyday life. I thought more than once of David Lynch’s spaces of eerie, otherworldly performance: the Roadhouse, the Club Silencio. Spaces that veer off course from the reality that we know, producing a collective melancholy, absence and presence co-mingling in shimmering fog and pulsing light.

A trained opera singer, Keckler serenades us in English, Italian, French, German, and even an invented “shadow language.” What he sings about is often incongruously (and hilariously) prosaic—hangnails, Google Translate, the band Cheap Trick—but applying what we hear as grandiose operatic flair to such mundane details is about much more than the laugh. This aesthetic transposition confers a kind of dignity on the banality of so much of our existence. And this dignity is what opens our awareness to the potential for loss.

In a post-performance talkback, Keckler briefly mentioned the AIDS crisis while discussing his experience as an “old millenial” artist based in New York. He astutely observed that the loss of an entire generation of artistic experimentation placed younger artists in the position of trying to recover—rather than the more traditional avant-garde posture of rejecting—the work of those who came before. It would be an overreach to claim that Train With No Midnight is “about” the epidemic, but its ghosts are certainly present in Keckler’s project of recovery, haunted as it is by illness and gentrification, partings and lacunae. The performance’s 60-minute length corresponds to an hour that never was, a New Year’s midnight that vanished when a train crossing time zones jumped from 11:30pm to 12:30am.

In lesser hands, this could all sink into goth-twee preciousness, an exercise in grimly wistful nostalgia. Not so with Keckler, who maintains a gentle, wry control over his tales and his audience. He never impresses seriousness upon us; nor humor, for that matter, letting us come to both on our own. The lyric about that hangnail comes in the middle of a paranoid-hypochondriac aria that recounts various seemingly ridiculous ways in which Keckler has imagined his own demise: What if I got someone’s sex fluids in my hangnail / and now am dying? It’s sung in French; you laugh, and then a well of grief rises in your chest. Keckler keeps on singing.

[Video still by Joseph Keckler and John Anderson Beavers]

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Philip Wesley Gates is a director, performance maker, and writer/scholar currently based in Pittsburgh. Deploying queer, choreographic, and participatory strategies, their work proposes alternative possibilities and modes of relation. They hold an MFA in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University.

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