The Mat Bevel Institute Makes A Successful Landing In The Former Downtown Performance Center.
By Mari Wadsworth
THE BLUE HORSE mural, by UA art student Emily Tellez, has vanished. That's because the brick wall the poor creature has smashed its head against for the past few years has been torn down, along with all the brick walls of two other warehouse buildings there on Stone Avenue, just north of Sixth Street. All that's left now is a concrete slab, an inconspicuous dirt parking lot, and the sole survivor on the property, a white brick warehouse half-muraled and half-tagged, set back on the alley side. It doesn't look like much from the outside (yet), and it would be easy to drive past, even if you were looking for it. But behind the weathered wooden door, the old Downtown Performance Center has been transformed into the new Mat Bevel Institute, and it's taken on a life that only performance artist Ned Schaper can adequately explain...if you can keep up with him.
He's in constant motion as he shows off his new digs, disappearing behind faux doors, climbing ladders, turning on colored lights, and interrupting himself to describe his own mechanical creations, a functional autobiography rendered with equal parts of Dr. Seuss and The Addams Family. "There's this huge element here of my life," he says during a pre-performance interview. "It's a space where you can come and when you're in that space you're immersed in that lifestyle."
True to form, the local poet, musician and "kinetic sculptor" pulls all the stops to show us there is chaos in order, beginning with a brief history of the space "willed" to him by Steven Eye, the former D.P.C. owner who tried unsuccessfully to keep the old warehouse alive as a performance venue. In the two years since the D.P.C. closed, it's alternately lain fallow, been rented to another hapless arts group that never managed to get the doors open, and, finally, faced demolition by its current owner, the Arizona Department of Transportation. Under a new group of watchful caretakers--including the City of Tucson and the Arts District Partnership, who're diligently working to secure warehouse spaces in the downtown area for live/work artist studios--the plucky venue is getting another chance.
"I just keep my head down and go about my business," says Schaper, who's leased the space for six months now. Lately he's been spending the night there, putting the final touches on the place before last week's inaugural performance.
"I've done this for no money. It's all junk. I've completely reshifted the work areas, and removed a bunch of stuff. All the paint (inside) is found paint." Maybe that explains why the "Red Room" (a sound room transformed to a puppet theatre) is actually purple and green, and the "Lavender Lounge" (which adjoins the one-room kitchen he calls the "cafeteria") is largely robin's-egg blue and red-orange. Such is the working palette. But removed is the operative word, here: What he's basically done is to knock down the interior walls and rebuild them around the perimeter, adding doors, faux windows and secondary stages high off the ground which create a space at once open and labyrinthine. Innumerable found-object sculptures--all mechanical--await on-stage, hang from the walls, roll out onto the concrete floor, or are displays unto themselves, complete with colored lights. The main stage is an island in the somewhat center of it all.
It's a cavernous building with high ceilings, but his carefully controlled light sources make the room look alternately large and small. "This might be as big as I could be," he admits. Maximum capacity here is around 250, which is "way more than I have chairs for."
"The other space was intimate, but this sort of is too, because you're surrounded by the feel of things. You're right there, up close to the stage, in the middle of the action."
Amen to that. Last week's opening brought all the moving parts together, with an imaginative, two-hour show that lives up to its self-titled "surrealistic pop-science theatre" moniker. He calls the show Jet Set Jettison, which simultaneously refers to one of the sculptural pieces he wears as a helmet in one part of the show, and a character personified from one of his poems.
The show, which is a fusion of live performance, recorded music, poetry reading and science demonstration, is all one evolving concept of creative output. At least it comes with instructions: "Like music that ends where it started, the path of imagination is the actual work of art," reads the program.
When you play a fictional character playing a variety of other fictional characters, things are bound to get out of hand. But Schaper (or Mat Bevel, or Jet Set Jettison) moves from one sketch to the next with the excitement and confidence of a mad scientist. Although moving easily among his own creations, he convinces us that not even he can be certain of what will happen next. Wildly funny, unpredictably in and out of control, he's like the Willy Wonka of his pop-theatre world. His performances are a marvel of percussive poetry and musical syncopation, and the perfect timing of his on-stage antics with self-recorded original music and multiple tracks of song and spoken word belie the spontaneity he affects on stage.
If you're a theatre-goer who likes to "get it," Bevel's multi-layered poetic musings may not be the ticket you're looking for. But for sheer innovation, you can't beat Bevel's one-string bass, 12-volt motorized reindeer cart, the whirring intellectual plane ("Which can also be a boat," he says), or catchy "Quality Gas Mask" jingle. With only two performances planned for the coming year ("one at the beginning and one at the end," which according to the Institute's calendar constitutes October and April), you won't have many opportunities to see this rare genius in his element.
Jet Set Jettison continues with performances at 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday, October 11 through 13, at the new Mat Bevel Institute, 530 N. Stone Ave. Tickets are $6, available at the door. Call 571-8202 for reservations and information on upcoming workshops. Food and beverages by Café Magritte are available before and after the performance.
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