The versatility of Jess Barbagallo as a writer, performer, and person is nothing short of inspiring. Their hunger for reading manifests in a unique habit of using books to take notes. When lending their books to friends, Jess often needs to rip back pages out to keep track of their writing. There is something spilling over. There is never a shortage.
Jess has written a great number of plays that have been produced in downtown theaters over the past ten years. Throughout these plays, places not unlike the small upstate towns enlarge into a psychic atmosphere of intertwined families, loners, and conflicting desires. You could leave these plays and not really know the plot. This is an agile container for Jess’ fearlessly hilarious, darkly emotional, and harshly critical writing.
The characters’ Jess writes often go on poetic monologues, disjointed not only in their estrangement from the other characters, but disjointed from the form of the play itself. Jess’ realm of experimentation is the finely crafted tangent, a map of digressions that, when examined together build a place just outside the periphery of the one we struggle to survive. The dramatic events in Jess’ plays range from holes in the ground, to ditches, to simply falling to the ground. Details are not always in the conflicts because much is loaded in symbolic gesturing.
When I saw Saturn Nights in the theater above this very room in 2011—I had prolonged my flight back to San Francisco because it felt so urgent to see Jess’ work. That night I met the character Sweatpants, played by Laryssa Husiak, who appeared sporadically, marrying bottles of Ketchup with her head slightly down. I don’t know if this is an accurate memory, of Sweatpants, but I have come to love that name.
One of Jess’ more recent plays, is a support group for aspiring writers that takes place in Joe Ranono’s basement, risking an extraction of the glamour of male drag performance, and replacing it with potentially rotten chinese takeout. Joe Ranono, if you have not seen him around town selling jewel case CDs and Broadsides by the name Cold Sore and Other Happenings, is an erotic poet helplessly lost in 70s attire and then even further lodged back in some fanciful land of historic poets voice, talking like “oh the beauty of my chihuahua’s ballsack!” Joe’s short lived lusts for theater interns and the like are loosely based on the bulge in the pants poet of yore Richard Brautigan. Joe Ranono is a critique of sexist male bravado. But Jess has been killing this character Joe, so it never becomes a gimmick, always challenging themself to do new, different work.
Which leads us to their artistic entanglement with Karen Davis, a fairly unknown comedienne, who we will learn more of this evening. I first saw Karen as a fledging character in Men’s Creative Writing Group, where she played Joe’s irritated roommate. Karen Davis does stand up in a bad mood, throwing her darts to bounce off the dart board, to encapsulate the frustrated energy of unemployment mired in white heterosexual culture to which the only savior is a few too many drinks. Karen Davis just debuted a full-length show at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange last spring, something Jess had explained to me as rivaling an HBO special in magnitude.
Jess has performed all over the world, with an array of theater companies’ foldable high tek sets. They have at least five different plays memorized at once it seems. How do they do it? Jess was trained in that venerable art of experimental theater, which has led them in to scenarios of amazing collaboration. Most recently with Tina Satter’s Half Straddle Company, where Jess stars as a trans teenager in House of Dance, which is opening tomorrow night at Abrons Art Center. Jess does not believe in packaging art with boundaries. Even their bios and press images are filled with the schemes of the work. This is art that pushes on what could be comfortable for the audience because you might not know what’s happening. There is always a world that bleeds in whatever Jess creates.