Kenyon Philllips Scheduled to Die in World Premiere at Joe’s Pub
Lots of performers talk about "dying" onstage, but local glam-rock favorite Kenyon Phillips plans to take this concept to a new extreme in his 90-minute rock opera "The Life + Death of Kenyon Phillips," which makes its debut at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater on Friday, May 2.
Will it be by drowning or execution (metaphorically, of course)? That will be up to an audience vote after they hear about the ups-and-downs (mostly downs) of this former model/go-go boy/male hustler/freelance writer/rock star (who has fronted such popular bands as Unisex Salon, Roma, and Thrill A Minute.)
Joining Phillips and his all-girl backing band, The Ladies In Waiting, will be a host of burlesquers, magicians, and other shining stars from the NY underground.
"I created a timeline of about 10 milestone events -- mostly traumatic ones -- in my life that have forged my identity up to this point, and have turned them into a series of vaudeville skits and original songs. While the show is sometimes absurdist and mostly comedic, the experience does end up being pretty intense." says Phillips in explaining the piece, which covers such subjects as childhood bullying and same-sex rape.
But why put the worst parts of your life out there for everyone to see? "After doing a series of gigs and variety-type shows at Joe's Pub over the years, a friend of mine suggested I try writing something with a beginning, middle, and end, and that it should be something intensely personal," he notes. "So I thought about it, and I decided it would be both cathartic and interesting to do something autobiographical, yet turn that concept on its head."
In Phillips' view, that means everything you hear and see during the show is based on fact, but may not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. "While I talk about things that happened to me, I am also asking the question, 'Does it matter if it really happened or if it happened the way I tell it?'" he says. "Are we really capable of remembering of how things happened? I think maybe we're not, but when we tell a story about our own lives, even if it's not the literal truth, it is the truth for the person telling it."
For that reason, Phillips not only decided that no episode in his life would be off-limits, but also that he wouldn't run the script by anyone who is mentioned in it. "I wondered if I should do that, before deciding against it," he admits. "I know some people might be upset by how they're portrayed, especially my parents. I guess you could call it terrorist theater in that sense. But once again, I also leave open the possibility that I made everything in this show up simply to entertain people."
To tell his story, Phillips will not only play himself, but also a French ringmaster/emcee who oversees the proceedings -- and who has no great love for the title character. "I was really influenced by Max Ophuls' film 'Lola Montez,' which was about this famous courtesan who tells her life story through the context of a circus and ends up having an odd relationship with its ringmaster," he recalls. "So that's why the ringmaster in this show decides that a great idea for me to die on stage -- after a lot of the other characters call for my death."
Among those characters are Phillips' mother (played by Tony Award-nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega), his skeptical therapist (played by famed gossip columnist Michael Musto), and a local reporter (played by actor-playwright David Cale). "The casting of this show was very organic," he says. "I've known all these people through various projects and envisioned them in these roles. So I simply came to them and said, 'I have no money to pay you, but this show is the most important thing to me, and I would be so honored if you would be in it.'"
While the show is currently a one-night-only gig, Phillips hopes his "Life and Death" will have a longer shelf life. "I'd love it to become sort of a 'Rocky Horror'-type things where people could come back to see it over and over again," he says. "And if it works, I might even decide to stage some of the other horrible episodes of my life."
Tickets for "The Life + Death of Kenyon Phillips" can be purchased here.