On January 17, Atlas Obscura fired up the incense, lit some candles, and conjured a performance straight from the fever dreams of the late-90s Satanic Panic. Set in the confines of a converted Fishtown convent, poet and performer Janaka Stuckey’s Ascend Ascend hit all the wrong notes (in just the right way) to produce a truly bizarre and cheesy performance.
Filled with necrophilous imaginings, self-indulgent spiritual syncretism, and repetitive melodic structure, Stuckey’s long poem would be dreadfully boring in the written form. But through the magic of physicality, quivering fingers, drones, and veins that looked ready to blow, Stuckey’s reading of Ascend Ascend had me riveted through most of his performance.
Will I ever again see a man passionately proclaim that he is engaging in an orgy with corpses, insects, and elephants; or cover his head in white pigment and look as if he’s dripping blood out of his mouth, his body shaking violently throughout, suggesting he may or may not be being transformed into some type of unholy angel before then pantomiming the destruction of his own body? No, but perhaps that is for the best.
It was a totally ridiculous adolescent power fantasy filtered through copious layers of gore, filled with the type of sincerity that sees reality as boundless. Every action was planned down to the second: the swelling of mysterious liquids, the dubbing over of his own voice, the vaguely appropriative use of world music, the very contour of poetic lines. It was all designed to evoke a certain feeling of gothic dread and horror—but I couldn’t help but suppress giggles, especially in the piece’s denouement, where Stuckey banged against the stage, moaning. That he tried so hard to suffer is amusing.
Though to be fair, Stuckey’s wordplay is solid. He juxtaposes images and sensations in ways that create rapid shifts in mood and subject matter, combining the pastoral with the apocalyptic. Stuckey’s voice has a great gravel to it, as well as a high resonance which almost seems to form an echo. In performance, his throaty affectation almost made you think that what he was describing really happened. Never once did he stutter, stammer, or chunk out a difficult word. Everything flowed through him, crystal clear, giving him the dynamism of an oracle who might just levitate.
Discomfort and danger
Unfortunately, by the last 15 minutes of Ascend Ascend, the schtick had grown quite tired. This was due to the extreme physical discomfort of the venue. My seat was wedged against the stage and the wall, with no room for my legs to go anywhere but minimally resting on the stage. I felt as if my body was trapped in a small closet for about an hour, leaving me with an aching back and legs. I assume that the tiny chapel was beyond max capacity, with more than full house plus approximately 10 people standing in the back.
A representative for Atlas Obscura Philly said the organization is trying to reemerge and reinvent itself with more happenings in 2020. While I appreciate the imagination, it would be best if they paid more attention to audience experience rather than cramming in the maximum number of guests, both for the audience’s safety and comfort and for Atlas Obscura’s goal to build a long-term patron base. As it stands, it’s hard to trust a company that would overstuff a tiny venue with limited exits and then add a fire element to the stage.
What, When, Where
Ascend Ascend. By Janaka Stuckey, presented by Atlas Obscura on January 17, 2020, at The Convent Philly, 1638 Berks St., Philadelphia. thirdmanstore.com/ascend-ascend.
The Convent Philly is not wheelchair accessible.