Frontlines

Just a quiet night in front of 40 TVs

Marni Jackson December 4 1978
Frontlines

Just a quiet night in front of 40 TVs

Marni Jackson December 4 1978

Just a quiet night in front of 40 TVs

Frontlines

The Hummer Sisters, the self-styled “postfeminist, neo-terrorist, martial show-biz cult,’’have gone for the jugular again. This time around, the Hummers have x-rayed sex, and come back from the lab laughing and crying at the same time. Hairline fractures, multiple contusions—modern sex is a mess, it’s hanging on by a thread. But, wearing pith helmets and lab coats, hacking their way through the jungle of gender armed only with video cameras and a wit that won’t quit, the Hummers try to nail down the problem in a blitzkrieg mix of rock ’n’ roll, TV and theatre that they invented, and call Video Cabaret. Their two previous underground hits made mincemedia out of the headlines, turning

the Patty Hearst and Karen Anne Quinlan sagas into self-satirizing cultural metaphors. Their two trips to off-offoff Broadway New York drew a “we are amused” from The New York Times and “we are in love” from other reviewers, although nobody knew exactly what to call this new theatrical amoeba.

With backgrounds in acting, art, video and TV (D. Ann Taylor, who writes the Hummer scripts, played Maggie

Muggins on CBC) the Hummers—Taylor, Marien Lewis, Janet Burke and Bobbe Besold—began performing three years ago. They joined forces with guitarist Andy Paterson, and evolved Video Cabaret on weekends at Toronto’s Space Gallery, in tandem with Strawberry Fields by playwright Michael Hollingsworth. The Hummer Talent Cartel brought together art orphans to do exactly what cabaret used to do— cross-pollinate the arts, experiment, and sing songs in a smoky room to whoever wandered in. The Hummers served beer, stacked their own chairs, worked for $50 a week and chafed the nerves of anyone looking for a predictable night out. They still do; their new show, Nympho Warriors, is a work-in-progress and probably always will be. That was the nature of cabaret and it goes double for

Video Cabaret. But while their vocabulary is fringe, their energy and instincts are potentially prime-time.

Nympho Warriors flickers somewhere between a Grade 9 health class and theatre-as-chemotherapy. As the Tall Hummer trains her video camera on the action, thrown back by 40 TV monitors (some of them tuned to realtime television, others tuned in to the Hummers), Besold executes a six-foot sketch of the hairpin turns of the male reproductive circuit and the fleur-de-lis inner landscape of the female, while the Hummer Greek chorus tracks the story of conception like sportscasters reporting the Formula One Grand Prix. It’s exciting, and funny. Backed by the tight “rock ’n’ rule” of a band called The Government (Paterson, Ed Boyd and Robert Stewart), the Hummers

update the story of How Life Begins, with added flashbacks to Genesis: Marien Lewis as Snakeoil lounges on top of a TV in the Garden of Eden, having seduced Eve with his virile video; “Hey, I’m gorgeous,” squeals Eve, looking down the lens and losing her innocence as 40 monitors mirror her Fall into selfconsciousness.

Wearing garter belts around their heads (literally), the Hummers are out to throttle neanderthal notions of what’s news and what’s not, what’s sex and what’s ersatz. It could be Canada’s first biological comedy revue; whatever it is, Nympho Warriors is hitting the road this month to play Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary before returning to New York in January. (Hollingsworth’s video-play, Electric Eye, opens Video Cabaret with a dayin-the-life-of-a-psychopath, a perfect

impersonation of alienation and a cold intro to the warm Hummers.)

For three years, the Hummers have been a here-today, gone-tomorrow underground staple in Toronto—toughtalking, quixotic, well reviewed but never venturing beyond the safety (and risk) of small spaces and the same old audience. “Too old to punk, too young to pantsuit” is where they situate themselves, on the cusp between the old role models and the new “neutered nature,” as they call it. At the heart of their avant-garde attack is a radical conservatism. The Hummers fear that with birth control getting so fancy, and genders so confused, people may forget how it all began—blunted by media, drilled by disco, is anybody listening to the glandular backbeat these days? “People will settle for anything,” says D. Ann Taylor, “look what happened to the

hamburger.” As a counter-attack against “junk food, junk sex and junk culture,” the Hummers are redoing the creation myths. “Don’t do anything drastic,” they harmonize sweetly, “I want to make it in plastic.” It’s a preposterous gamble, confronting an audience with household profanities and the lunar cycle in a rock ’n’ roll litany, blown up six ways with video, visuals and a pun-riddled script that hits somewhere above or below workaday reason, but when the mix clicks, it is brilliant theatre. “The Hummers are the future, whether you like it or not,” is how Hollingsworth once hyperbolized it in a radio interview. The Hummers are also sentimental survivors, looking for something that got lost.

Frequently, however, Video Cabaret is either broke or broken. Having thrown away all the old role models—

no old-school producers or directors here—the Hummers are a balancing act easily thrown out of whack. “Everything happens subversively,” says Marien Lewis, the video wizard of the four. “Sometimes it comes down to who can scream the loudest.” On bad nights, the Hummer spine slips a disc and nothing works. “Could we have more volume on our mikes,’’they plead into the darkness of an exasperated audience.

“The main criticism about the Hummers is that they refuse to be neat,” says Paul Thompson, a grandfather of the Toronto alternate theatre scene and an early investor in the Hummers (to the tune of $5,000). “But if they had tidied up their act earlier, they might not have enlarged theatrical effects the way they have. They’re working out there on the edge, and I like their daring.” Marni Jackson