Brooklyn the Borough
October 26th 2011
The actor Matthias Girbig hooks his leather motor-cycle jacket to a cartoonishly-chunky five-foot long chain twice during the bilingual musical theater adaptation of Please Kill Me–Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s famous “oral history of punk” imported from France to the Invisible Dog Art Center in Carroll Gardens last Sunday.
First, a few minutes in, Girbig is portraying Iggy Pop, singing “I Want to be Your Dog” to the actress Kate Strong—strutting androgynously and chained up, its still clear from Strong’s position (she’s on the floor) that Girbig’s Iggy knows its just a gag and he’s in control. Then he does it again finally towards the end, as a pathetic Dee-Dee Ramone talking about being 30-something, on a never-ending tour bus to hell imprisoned in the same clothes he wore as a teen-delinquent. The punk rock dream has died and the chain has become very real.
Reduced to its core, the adaptation is Girbig and Strong acting out dialogue—fished and sorted from the 420-pages of reminiscences and hundreds of characters in the original Please Kill Me—by a revolving line-up of aging first-wave punk rockers as they remember the rise and fall of their collective star. But through some alchemic combination—a solid backing band, the actors’ dynamism (both are over 40 but possessing an ageless physical presence that can shift from portraying adolescent longing to the bitter regret of middle age in a few steps) and the strength of the original material—it succeeds in being much more than that; namely a play about what its like to fall in love with punk through the eyes of a teen reader in his bedroom dreaming about the characters in Please Kill Me.
This more powerful secondary layer flickers dimly via a school-style desk-chair ensemble wedded to the stage, and later lights up for a few beats. The actors, dropping their successive masks—as Iggy, Dee-Dee, Legs McNeil etc.—literally grapple with the text. They pantomime excited confusion—bandying Americanisms and Junkie lingo—then finally “get it.” Cue “angel-headed hipsters” (the guitarists wearing detachable wings) bestow a kind of benediction on the youthful readers— symbolized by a pair of wings for Girbig and a purple leopard skin coat for Strong. It’s become their bible, you see? As a pronouncement of their new punk faith, the duo shout “suck my dick!” and “eat my pussy.”
The self-evidently small odds that a religion—made of three-chords, Rebel Without a Cause, hard drugs, and a dash of Rimbaud—ripped from Please Kill Me’s pages will keep its new adepts in a state a grace pay-off almost immediately. The tempo of the Velvets-style score slackens and an opiated blue haze swallows up the stage. Kate Strong as the Dead Boys’ Jeff Magnum repeatedly insists: “I just wanted to play Bass.” The cast breaks into “I’m Straight,” by The Modern Lovers A Cappella. Girbig transforms the chant first into a fevered denial—and then by screwing up his face into a tortured grimace—a full throated, if unhinged, plea for forgiveness.
With many of its stars dead from misadventure by the book’s final pages, happy endings are hard to come by in anybody’s rendition of Please Kill Me. But the last words chosen for this production are Television’s Richard Lloyd’s —delivered in a souped-up testament to the insular nature of the characters’ self-reinforcing rock and roll communion via large screen projection—are not loaded down with despair. Gibring whispers in French to Strong, who translates, until the final sentence, which she only repeats in French. “It was a real religious experience to have gone through that.”