June 5, 2022
Q: What do rotting food and clowns have in common? A: It feels like Alex Tatarsky is the only one who’s into them. Tatarsky knows that they’re working with subjects that trigger immediate disgust. But using a combination of classic jester methods and thorough academic research, they’ve set out to convince society to put aside their prejudices, one audience at a time.
Early in the show, Tatarsky warns us that they’re a little rusty as a performer. Two years of a pandemic laid waste to the field of live performance and suddenly we’re expected to return to normal? “If anything doesn’t work in this show, just know that I respect that, because I don’t want to work anymore either.” As a performance methodology, it’s foolproof.
Dirt Trip is a beautiful blend of tightly researched monologues and manic physical improvisation. Tatarsky explicates esoteric clowning traditions, then riffs on them effortlessly. They tell us about how kings would carve smiles into the faces of their jesters, an example of the strange sadism embedded in the form. Later in the show, they pick up a lemon and bite into it. Just as we begin to laugh in amazement, they cut in, “You like that? You like to watch me suffer?” They take the bitten lemon and squeeze it directly into their eyes. Laughter turns to shock, and they come at us again, “Oh, so you only like it when I suffer a little bit.”
At another moment, they shove a banana into their mouth in a way that’s not quite sexual, but also not unsexual. After tossing the peel on the ground, they ham up the prep for an inevitable comedic slip. The audience plays along, until someone in the front row knocks over their metal water bottle. It clatters on the concrete floor. Without missing a beat, Tatarsky locks eyes with them and quips, “Way to ruin the moment,” then slides to the ground on the peel.
Power dynamics are the undercurrent of the night—between audience and performer, artist and institution, landlord and tenant. Partway through their opening, while we’re still warming up to the performance, Tatarsky looks out at the crowd and says, “It’s scary up here, you all could just kill me.” And yet, they make a point of reveling in the strange privileges they’ve been afforded as an artist. Soon afterward, they ask the production crew, “This is an expensive mic, right?” before aggressively snotting on it to make a fart sound.
One of the best punchlines comes from a story about composting in New York City. Tatarsky tells us about a parking spot in their neighborhood that they turned into a community garden fueled by local composting efforts. This utopian gardening project quickly got shut down by their landlord Jeff, who proceeded to pave over the space and erect posts around the area so no one could park in it. “Landlords are the real conceptual artists,” says Alex Tatarsky, “like, a skyscraper full of apartments that no one lives in?” It’s a joke that lands especially well in an audience of people who are educated enough to love conceptual art and hate landlords. When you’re sitting in a room full of mostly-white Brooklyn mullets, it can be difficult to tell who the butt of the joke is.
Performance art often begs the question: what do your parents think of this? Tatarsky has an answer: their mother thinks it’s disgusting. It all started during the pandemic, when they began composting. As piles of food scraps accumulated in their room, their mother grew concerned, worrying that they were living in filth. In a ballad-y number, Tatarsky sings out “Mama, Mama, Mama, please believe,” extolling the virtues of compost and the benefits of garbage. They mock their mother’s prudish responses, then change their tune: “MoMA, MoMA, MoMA, please believe.” It becomes clear that Tatarsky had asked the museum for a much messier performance, and maybe even a commitment to start composting, but MoMA had demurred, citing logistical problems and the risks of having rotting food near the art.
And yet, Tatarsky manages to bring in wheelbarrows full of dirt and dump them all over the venue later in the show. Another message delivered through the unlikely format of clowning: the people in power make the rules, but the rules are arbitrary. In a different part of the extended clown history lecture, we learn about Billy Buttons, who is considered the “father of American circus.” His first act, Tailor’s Ride to Brentford (circa 1768), featured a bumbling fool who tried to ride a horse to get to the polls but failed every time. By Tatarsky’s analysis, this shows that democracy has always been a clown show—a performance that politicians told us wouldn’t work from the beginning so we wouldn’t get mad when they rigged it.
Of course, Dirt Trip ends in destruction. How can you make a piece about mess and garbage without tearing apart your entire set? Tatarsky pops out of the cutouts in the construction barrier like a jack in the box, then pushes their way through the entire wall. Behind the set, pallets of plants sit under grow lights. This tiny forest of weeds gets left out of Tatarsky’s warpath. For all their bluster and theory, Tatarsky is simply a plant dad, tenderly hoping for a world that will support their children.