Paul Zaloom is a performance artist who can really perform. He has a voice he can twist up into falsetto or down into resonant radio-announcerese. He plays against his sardonic, world-weary deadpan with crack comic timing. And he's a goofily inventive puppeteer. In "My Civilization," which opened last night for a 12-day run at the Studio Theatre, Zaloom aims for political satire. Fortunately he shoots too high. He may start out to instruct, but he ends up delighting.
Zaloom presents himself as a deceptively mild, even humble figure. He shambles onstage and sits down at that old staple of school audiovisual rooms, an overhead projector. The next thing you know, he's creating life. He dumps food coloring onto the projector's screen. It's supposed to serve as amino acids and it must do the trick because all of a sudden the screen is vital with "amoebas, spirochetes and twistoperms." The twistoperm in question looks like the real thing, all right; he must have excavated it from a 1959 beauty parlor.
Like John Waters and Christopher Durang, Zaloom grew up Catholic in the '50s. Something about that combination seems to produce zanies. Zaloom attacks the usual current topics of American absurdity -- the National Endowment for the Arts, nuclear power, food additives -- and his takes on them are often clever. In a segment called "Phood," he comes up with a recipe for two "food products": "It's-Not-Lobster in I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter." But in his choice of props to manipulate -- the props that become his puppets -- Zaloom goes way beyond clever. In the Garden of Eden, God announces to Adam and Eve that they should "go forth and multiply ... but not for pleasure, only for arithmetic." There's a Grouchoesque zing to that line, but the audience may not pay proper attention to it. They may be distracted by the fact that God is represented by a gigantic plastic Christmas candle, Eden by a mound of Easter grass, and Adam and Eve by two blue stuffed bunnies. Zaloom demonstrates a previously undiscovered aesthetic truth: It can be a small step from the cute to the surreal, provided you have enough wit. Zaloom's wit is his magician's wand; it transforms what he touches.
He claims that as a child he collected garbage, by which he seems to mean not old banana peels or used chewing gum, but "found objects." Discarded plastic forks, stuff like that. He kept his collection in a museum in his family's garage. But he was only a child then. Grown up now, he understands better what to do with garbage. He plays with it.
He has other props too. Plastic frogs and skeletons. The aforementioned bunnies. A football with a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe stuck in it (this represents the NEA). In one inspired piece of architecture, he creates a nuclear power plant from three blenders and a humidifier. But the humbler stuff brings out his real inventiveness. A fork serves as lightning. Old plastic cord twists around to represent the Los Angeles freeways. The Guggenheim Museum is represented by a hubcap. At one point Jesse Helms steps on the museum. Helms is played -- if that's the word -- by a male mannequin leg in black sock and shoe.
Different voices switch through Zaloom like electric current. He moves his various objects around with the alacrity of a juggler. A sheet of stamps becomes an apartment building. Bubble wrap metamorphoses into a skin rash. Zaloom has swift, graceful hands; sometimes his creations seem to just spring out of them. He's like a T-shirted god manipulating his universe of objects.
Zaloom satirizes a lot of worthy targets: the S&L scandal, the conflict in the Persian Gulf, the self-absorption of artists. But as a satirist he's merely entertaining. His brilliance lies in his mad whimsy, in the way he makes his world bloom with strangeness. Zaloom is a friendly rather than a threatening figure, but some of his odder ideas come at you fast as bullets. At his best, he can make you feel you're going a little crazy. He's not always at his best -- the evening drags in places, and occasionally his inventiveness sags. But he's a real original. He's about "art" as well as "performance" -- the manic restlessness of creativity, the creativity of play.
My Civilization, written and performed by Paul Zaloom. Directed by Donny Osmond; lighting by Bill Schaffner. At the Studio Theatre through Dec. 23.