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A Surrealist ‘Titanic’ — Featuring an Octopus, a Wiggly Dance and Mark Zuckerberg

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In some ways, turning the movie “Titanic” right into a farce about climate change makes numerous narrative sense. As an alternative of an iceberg — which has melted, in fact — the ship goes down since it hits a mountain of underwater garbage.

In other ways, “Titanic Depression,” a recent multimedia performance, could only have come from the madcap brain of Dynasty Handbag, the queer vaudevillian with punk origins and questionable taste in unitards.

The 1997 movie was a blockbuster, sure, but Dynasty Handbag’s vision could also be much more epic than James Cameron’s. Clad mostly in frilly underwear, with a recalcitrant therapist on speed-text, she’s a bawdy version of Rose (Kate Winslet’s character within the movie). Jack, the Leonardo DiCaprio love interest, is played by an octopus, who sneaks aboard the vessel disguised as a whimsical hat. Billy Zane’s villainous snob is replaced by a dildo in a black loafer. A camel and a microscopic tardigrade make cameos. Mark Zuckerberg is there. The entire thing is a metaphor concerning the seeming futility of fighting industrial capitalism and impending environmental doom, but it’s also: a hilarious romp! A sexcapade, with consent forms! A self-own, with a pause for meditation — about death! And Dynasty Handbag, the alter ego of the artist Jibz Cameron, inhabits all of the parts.

Cameron, 48, has been working various stages in San Francisco, Latest York and Los Angeles as Dynasty Handbag for over 20 years, constructing a fan base each at august cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at underground freak spectaculars.

“Jibz is capable of address all types of issues — whether it’s body dysmorphia or childhood trauma or climate change — with essentially the most hysterical absurdity and in ways that you simply would never expect,” said Ed Patuto, director of audience engagement at the Broad in Los Angeles, which programmed and commissioned her work. “She’s an excellent performer, in that you simply never see her rehearsals — it looks completely spontaneous.”

“Weirdo Night,” her popular, long-running monthly variety show in Los Angeles, which she summed up as a “live ‘Muppet Show’ meets demented queer ‘Star Search,’” has turn into a Mecca for the surreal. “The ‘Weirdo Night’ community is freak church and Dynasty Handbag is the weirdo priest,” said Sarah Sherman, the breakout “Saturday Night Live” star, who has performed there. (The series was the topic of a well-received 2021 Sundance documentary.)

“Titanic Depression,” which was commissioned by the Brooklyn cultural venue Pioneer Works in 2017 and can premiere there on Saturday and Sunday, is Cameron’s most ambitious and multidisciplinary project yet; it involves animation, video, soundscapes, singing, history and dance. It arrives on the heels of her Guggenheim Fellowship, lots for an artist who refers to her crew as “dirtbag queers.”

As her vision for “Titanic” grew, “it just kept getting extra money and more attention,” Cameron said, with an avant-gardist’s note of surprise. “After which I kept feeling prefer it needed to be larger and greater.”

“What keeps it fresh for me is knowing that I can just make myself something to do, if I need to do it,” she added, on a break from rehearsals near her home in Los Angeles last week, in a studio where she also takes punk aerobics. “I definitely trust that it’s what it desires to be.”

Her instincts are being recognized throughout: She’s going to have visual art in “Made in L.A.,” the Hammer Museum’s biennial this fall; a comedy album, on the artist Seth Bogart’s Wacky Wacko label, can also be forthcoming.

But even amongst performance artists — not exactly a conformist bunch — Cameron’s alchemy of comedy, art, music, theater and fashion stands out for actually delivering on its lunacy.

“Jibz is a force of nature,” said Jack Black, the actor and musician, adding that he and his wife, Tanya Haden, “were completely blown away” once they first saw Dynasty Handbag. “We were laughing uncontrollably,” he wrote in an email. “It felt like a hallucinogenic experience.”

With a pointy jawline, an askew wig and features that contort right into a bouquet of disdain, Cameron plays Dynasty as an alternate-universe star, whose aesthetic is “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” crossed with a minor ’80s Aaron Spelling crime drama (these days she’s been a fan of “Hart to Hart”), “but covered in goo, and a lesbian,” she said.

One among those inspirations, Paul Reubens — Pee-wee Herman himself — was impressed by her character work. “To a certain degree, she seems type of undefinable,” he said. “You could have to see it; you possibly can’t explain it thoroughly. And that in itself looks as if an incredible thing to have going for yourself.”

The show, originally developed with the artist and technologist Sue-C, and presented as a part of the Latest York Live Arts festival Planet Justice, is performed with a video backdrop; our heroine is live onstage, and everybody else is animated, mostly from Cameron’s own drawings, and sometimes along with her face.

At a recent rehearsal in Brooklyn, Cameron and a team of her collaborators — including her co-writer Amanda Verwey, and the visual director, Mariah Garnett, who’s Cameron’s romantic partner — were working through a scene. À la Rose and Jack, Dynasty trails the octopus through gilded-age state rooms — generated partly by Dall-E, the image A.I., because, Cameron explained, that makes them visibly off-kilter, like Dynasty herself. Within the bowels of the ship, they discover a throbbing dance party. (Cue techno beats, not fiddle.) Cameron choreographed a wiggly duet along with her cephalopod lover.

Loads of the hourlong show is that this loopy, until it gets to what David Everitt Howe, the Pioneer Works curator who commissioned the project, called “the bonkers death sequence.” A literal meditation, it underscores how consumerist greed led to the tragedy then, and to the vast trouble we’re in now.

“It was such a tonal shift,” he said. “It’s dark. I remember I laughed uncomfortably, but I feel it’s powerful, too. It makes the silliness stronger.”

Jibra’ila Cameron, often known as Jibz since childhood, grew up scrappy and poor in Northern California, with glimpses of creative freedom. A performing arts summer camp run by Wavy Gravy, the hippie clown and a friend of her parents, “totally saved my life as a child,” she said.

Her family life was volatile, though, and he or she left home at 15 or so, bumming across the Bay Area. Though she hadn’t graduated from highschool, she was accepted on the San Francisco Art Institute on the strength of some Edward Gorey-style comics she drew. There, she was introduced to performance art and commenced making videos and joined bands. “I might just type of freak out onstage, play the keyboard,” she said. (One among the groups was an all-female post-punk act called Dynasty; when it split up, she kept the name, tacking on Handbag — I all the time thought the word handbag was really funny.”)

Later, hoping to turn into an actor, she studied at a theater conservatory. She had already embodied Dynasty Handbag, who debuted at Ladyfest in San Francisco in 2002, and her look stays remarkably the identical: a misguided tackle femininity, a studied failure of aesthetics. “She’s wearing tights, but they’re underneath a showering suit,” Everitt Howe noted. “It’s all layered incorrect.”

Her quixotic clarity has influenced a younger generation of artists, like Sherman. “Jibz gave me the most effective piece of recommendation ever — after seeing me perform with all my props and costumes and gadgets and gizmos, she said, ‘You don’t must WORK so hard, you’re funny! You’re ENOUGH!’” Sherman wrote. “I actually took that to heart.”

Cameron shouldn’t be related to the “Titanic” director James Cameron, but he’s within the show, alongside industrialists like Benjamin Guggenheim, who “made his money within the mining and smelting businesses,” Dynasty Handbag says, punctuating her monologue about him with fart and bomb sounds. The disembodied voice of Guggenheim, who actually died aboard the Titanic, responds: “How dare you, I gave you a Guggenheim in 2022 and also you wouldn’t be making this ridiculous show without me!”

Cameron was still understanding the ending for “Titanic Depression” last week, conjuring a moment out of a discarded plastic straw, a Lou Reed song and a gown fabricated from garbage.

“I feel like what I need to evoke with that is making something out of nothing — this tiny hope, survivability,” she told her crew. “People make music irrespective of where they’re, what socioeconomic class. I get to return out in my showstopper outfit — that’s the showbiz part I actually like. After which it gets weird.”

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