While I do love a snap decision, your first thought is rarely your best. When I’m being pompous (this ranges from “always” to “when I’m teaching”), I say that asking “Do I like this?” is the most boring way to watch something—it’s much more exciting to ask, “What is this doing?” instead. I stand by that, but I can’t always live by it, because my preoccupation with instant pleasure keeps shouting down my better self.
Jonathan Capdevielle’s Adishatz/Adieu (co-produced by the COIL Festival and American Realness) wound up being a helpful corrective. It’s an extraordinary show, but the first section nearly drove me into fits. Nearly the first third of the hour-long piece is Capdevielle, as his teenage self in hoodie and jeans, singing snippets of Madonna songs. Capdevielle is French, and for the first few numbers, it’s sweet to hear his accent carefully navigating “Spanish Lullaby” and “Vogue.” That quickly sours. Occasionally he sings a song in French, sometimes with lyrics that are intentionally shocking (about a ten-year old’s “white ass” for instance), then swivels back to Madonna. Oh dear—I sniped to myself—here’s yet another instance of the avant-garde mixing ‘shock’ with ‘pop,’ pretending critique but nonetheless leaning on the craft of the derided object. How expected! How disappointing! Tut, I thought. Tut tut.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The piece then takes a series of turns—emotional and aesthetic—that demolish those early thoughts.
First, still a cappella, Capdevielle sings Purcell’s setting of Dryden’s lyric, “Music for a while / shall all your cares beguile,” his voice soaring into a countertenor polished on Madonna’s glassy notes. Dryden’s song imagines music as the balm that can soothe anything, even the Fury Alecto (“Till the snakes drop from her head, And the whip from out her hands”)—and we wonder what awful guilt this awkward boy needs to “beguile.” As he turns away from us, suddenly Capdevielle begins speaking both sides of a conversation. We hear what seems to be a verbatim exchange with his father, awkward and sweet—and we’re brought up short when his father says he’ll visit “mum and Nathalie’s graves” the next day. By now, Capdevielle has begun to change. He puts on a blonde wig, short sparkly dress and heels. A second conversation recalls the young Jonathan trying to comfort Nathalie in the hospital. The light barely reaches him at a makeup table far upstage as Capdevielle hacks and coughs; he spits phlegm.
The final “act” of the short work continues to use the heavily miked sound of Capdevielle’s imitations, though now we’re slewing between announcements at a raucous club and Jonathan trying to coax a drunk friend to leave. Staggering through the now-smoky space, slinging a broken disco ball around, Capdevielle (as himself? as the blitzed friend?) seems at risk. He looks so slim, so vulnerable in his beautiful, leggy drag that when five men appear dimly in the fog, a chill goes through you. It’s a long moment, watching him swaying at the edge of his spotlight, the men watching. Violence feels close by. And then—amazingly—the men break into an exquisite rendition of “Shenandoah.” Their voices hang in the air as the piece ends.
Adishatz/Adieu is a beautiful show, one that completes several swift journeys while on a single path. It moves from an ugly, empty stage to a painterly mise-en-scene; it moves from coolness to an almost unbearable pitch of concern. It’s possible, certainly, that everything is Capdevielle’s invention, but it seems as though we’re hearing confessions of real guilt, real pain and fear.
The awfulness of these remembered moments would be unbearable, but music lets Jonathan first imitate it, then escape into it, then evaporate past it. The Purcell is a key, but the key opens a maze, and Capdevielle moves by deliberate steps from clarity into mystery. And why should a picture painted of oneself be clear? In this strange, frightening, revelatory show, we see in one body a self which is male and female, young and old, imitative and creative, defiant and afraid all at once. This is what makes it feel so understandable, even universal. For a show about someone else’s memories, it’s strange how much the performance has wound up haunting me. It’s been a week since I saw it, but it’s has been hard to say adieu.