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Theater & Dance

Need to Know: Revenge of the Popinjay

Need to Know: Revenge of the Popinjay

Revenge of the Popinjay
Freja Mitchell

Sexy and disturbing: The experimental rap-horror show about a young gay man deals with anger and grief — and the need for power.

Photo by Freja Mitchell

"Kill the straights!" That violent message may not be what one expects to hear in a New York theater, but that's exactly what the radical and highly volatile Popinjay advocates in AnimalParts' Revenge of the Popinjay proclaim. The performance art-like theatrical piece is the second installment of their Tenderpits trilogy, but it stands on its own and is ultimately a thought-provoking exploration of grief, loss, and the different ways people cope with personal tragedy.

AnimalParts, made up of bi-national (US/Canada) duo Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz, is a New York City-based theater company that focuses on creating shows that are entertaining and intellectual. Johnston explains that Revenge of the Popinjay is "inspired by things from my real life and how I've been affected by my sister's death." He elaborates that he enjoys the play because it has allowed him to "explore going all the way to the edges of what would it be like if I actually allowed the pain and anger that I feel grow and grow and grow and grow."

Using string theory, Johnston introduces audiences to an Anthony that is unassuming, fumbling, and charming. He explains how the idea of infinite parallel universes works in theory, and he begins to build his hypothetical assertions about the different possibilities into the show's narrative. We get to know Anthony whose sister is dead, Anthony whose sister is alive, surgeon Anthony who also has a dead sister, the aggressive and titular Popinjay, and other characters. But it is through the savage Popinjay that Anthony Johnston, as creator of Revenge of the Popinjay, has that much-needed safe place in his work to let his grief and anger explode as he travels to a very dark and dangerous space--one where he can become a true monster.

"What if you were literally feeding the anger and the pain until it grew into a literal monster -- which is another way to look at what the Popinjay is and where he came from?" Johnston asks. "I think it is a manifestation of the anger and pain coming out of mine and the character's loss, but also refracted or put in this character that has a pseudo political agenda." That is where the Popinjay gets interesting for both the audience and Johnston.

"I do think the audiences can get behind it for a little while," he tells Out. "Not the killing of anybody, but the idea that 'Well, yeah, gay people should have power,' and sort of the idea that 'Yeah, there should be some sort of revenge against people that have done wrong.' "It's like, 'Well, that guy was gay bashed. What do we do to the perps? What do we do to those straight, heterophobic assholes?' " That is where the Popinjay steps in.

In addition to being a persuasive rapper, the Popinjay may also actually be murdering New York City's heterosexuals, amputating their arms, and then throwing their desecrated bodies into the East River. Thus, the Popinjay becomes a vitriolic symbol of "cult mentality, extremism, and referencing things like ISIS," Johnston says. Through the character, he knows exactly what it takes "to convince a room of people, or a group of people, to become a group that will do anything for you and believe in your in message to the point of hurting people."

The sexy but disturbing but also fascinating Popinjay is reactionary and a response to the liminal spaces that the modern gay man finds himself trapped within. In addition to being an avant-garde character that mirrors the violence of homophobia through his own extreme heterophobia, he is also everything that Johnston feels society doesn't want gay men to be. "As a gay man, I feel often times you're made to feel like you're meant to be funny and sweet or charming and the clown: safe," he explains. "It's kind of interesting to go all the way to the edge and create this character that's very in your face and not safe. I think that's unsettling for people too; to have this gay character that is so aggressive, violent, and using his sexuality to fuel that type of rage, violence, and to give him that power rather than using his sexuality as something that keeps him safe, silly, the clown, or the sidekick."

Often humorous and highly absorbing, AnimparlParts' Popinjay is surreally entertaining and delightfully cerebral. Originally workshopped at New York City's Dixon Place, this fully staged and realized production is a homecoming of sorts for the play.

Revenge of the Popinjay, through April 25 at Dixon Place (161-A Chrystie St., between Rivington & Delancey), New York City.

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