human jukebox

The Club

February 20 - March 8, 2009
Friday & Saturday at 10:00pm
Sunday at 5:30pm

Tickets $15

Joseph Keckler
Directed by Elizabeth Gimbel

"...his vocal skills are just one aspect of this gifted storyteller"

Keckler has developed a distinctive brand of performance, combining animated and unapologetically literary storytelling with a classically trained and chameleonic three-octave voice to explore the space between autobiography and fiction.  Human Jukebox weaves together stories about a mother’s life-threatening aneurism, her ability to summon any song she’s ever heard, the existential musings of an eccentric voice teacher, and the narrator’s survival strategies as a receptionist in a music publishing firm.  Keckler seamlessly moves in and out of characters, spinning a dark and comic meditation on alienation, death, and memory, while uncovering the fantastic, inner life of the banal.  The musical score includes a Puccini aria and several original ballads, accompanied by Keckler’s blues piano.

In Cat Lady, Keckler conjures up the portrait of a mother – an artist who turns her living room into a psychological theater of sorts where cats are the actors.  A domestic Dante, she weaves an epic around them, finding significance in their smallest of gestures.  Keckler, in turn, mythologizes her daily actions.

These are short stories brought vividly to life with flashes of surrealism, a wry New York wit, and a finely honed sense of the absurd.

Joseph Keckler is a performance artist, whose work has been presented at such venues as the Guggenheim Museum, San Francisco MOMA, Joe’s Pub, HERE Arts Center, La MaMa, Dixon Place, Weimar New York, Galapagos Art Space, The Stone, and London's Duckie, among others.  Most recently, he performed concerts with his band at Spiegelworld and The Zipper Factory and appeared in John Moran’s Saori’s Birthday at PS122.  Keckler has also appeared at The Public Theater, The Amato Opera, and The Soho Rep.  In 2007 he was a Witt Artist in Residence at The University of Michigan School of Art and Design – a program hosted by mentor playwright/performance artist Holly Hughes. He also participated in the Lincoln Center Directors Lab as a playwright, and was named a finalist in The New England Metropolitan Opera Auditions.  Keckler’s work has been featured on NPR and The Sundance Channel.  He earned his BFA in Painting, summa cum laude, from The University of Michigan, where he also trained operatically, as a bass-baritone, under George Shirley.

"A remarkable singer and storyteller…If David Sedaris did cabaret, it would be something like this.” – Irish Theater Magazine

"Operatic Sexpot" – Gay City News

“Divine.” – Time Out NY

Backstage Review
by Ronnie Reich
backstage pick!!

Despite the title, Joseph Keckler is much more than a human jukebox. Although this writer and performer can flip styles as though responding to a switch, take on myriad voices, and draw on an extensive musical repertoire, his vocal skills are just one aspect of this gifted storyteller.

Human Jukebox and the preceding sketch Cat Lady introduce Keckler's mother and delve into his relationships with her and those around them; she is the one actually identified by the show's title, an epithet Keckler's father gives her for the musical memory she's clearly passed down to her son.

From his mother's dramatic friend Carol to the needy, self-important customers at Boosey & Hawkes, where Keckler holds a day job, from his bohemian voice teacher in Greenpoint to the animals he encounters, each character comes across in full color. Caricature is part of Keckler's art, and his exaggeratedly pursed lips and cartoonishly wide eyes add much fun to the show, as do the accompanying sounds. He skillfully employs the baby talk his mother uses on her giant feline collection as well as spot-on bird imitations; voices that are by turns squeaky, sultry, and snooty; and songs from pop to Puccini. All the while his rich vocabulary ensures that even what we don't see or hear is vivid.

But Keckler goes far beyond comic surface impressions. As he deals with the news of his mother's aneurysm and the uncertainties and disappointments he and she both face throughout their lives, he is poignantly earnest and disarmingly articulate. The show moves with gratifying speed and fluidity under Elizabeth Gimbel's direction, and Robert Eggers' picturesque living-room set adds effective ambience. Keckler's literary flair can sometimes distract and add distance, but even at this slight remove, he is fascinating to meet.

no more canned music
by Stefanos Tsigrimanis, NY Press

Joseph Keckler´s human Jukebox and Cat Lady, currently at La MaMa, are not so much like walking down the boulevard of broken dreams, but like shuffling the kaleidoscopic bits and pieces of a very real dream world.

Keckler commands the stage with erotic bravado, launches into dramatic monologues and embodies so many different personae that you can’t help but wonder whether he’s possessed by spirits or if his body cannot help but channel all the of voices in his head. His showmanship is a blend of crooning—with a decidedly androgynous twist—and of performance art. He plays the game of seduction with his audience, but he knows the boundaries of his fictional world as well as the stage. He weaves together stories of love, intimacy, memory and death, all punctuated by his pulsating keyboard.

Mannequinish in a three-piece suit, Keckler seems somewhat wiry on stage until, that is, he belts out in his baritone voice as he skips around octaves and registers. Keckler exhibits his acting chops by switching personae and impersonating characters lying on opposite ends of the histrionics spectrum, from a vapid California broad to an imagined bespectacled teacher of music with a grating voice. “I think there’s something about characters and the desire to escape into them,” Keckler explains, adding, “my show is in the format of a narrator, narrating his own life. He continually slips into all these colorful characters and inhabits them fully, while he remains less defined.”

Keckler has been around the performance art world for the last few years after he moved to New York from Michigan, establishing his reputation by working with the likes of John Moran and Penny Arcade, and this Saturday he’s going to make an early appearance at the Folly benefit, on the same bill with Rufus Wainwright.

For the La MaMa show, his solo New York debut, he presents two pieces for voice and piano, Human Jukebox and Cat Lady, which are both semi-autobiographical.

As Keckler notes, “I like to play with the tension between autobiography and fiction.” In Human Jukebox, he takes the crowd through a motley crew of characters and episodes blown out of proportion.

Human Jukebox opens with a scene of Keckler’s mother playing a guessing game with his father, “the sole patron of the human jukebox.”

Keckler’s detached portrayal of both characters—and his swift reflexes and ability to convince that he’s not merely turning his imagined parents into a caricature for the show—complicate the relationship between what’s real and what’s fictional.

The father goes on naming song titles and Keckler-as-mother never fails to sing the right tune, anything from Benny Mardones’ “Into the Night,” to any song from My Fair Lady, to Puccini’s aria, “Nessun Dorma.”

In Cat Lady, a separate piece, once again, a mother transfigures the banality of everydayness, essentially “alchemizing daily life into art,” by dramatizing a cast of felines in her own personal soap opera.

Keckler, like a “fly on her wall,” observes and rhapsodizes about the mother’s constant preoccupation with the furry protagonists of the drama.The narrator “likens her various creative strategies to those of Warhol, Simone Weil, Magritte and de Sade” and sustains an equal tone of mockery and sophistication throughout this short piece.

Keckler belongs to a tradition of performers who use nuanced humor and dispassionate parody to conceal their own suffering, their absurd and agonizing seriousness regarding their own material.

In this case, Keckler turns deathly serious incidents, like his mother’s battle with a brain aneurysm, into a wistful and tragicomic affair.

Sensual, cathartic, overwrought and deeply philosophical, his psychotic twists and turns can bring his audience either to tears (from laughter) or to a numbed silence. On stage, Keckler paradoxically looms like a fragile doll, but he’s at his game and he plays it well, managing to sync with people’s emotions with natural ease.


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