The Pulsing Innards of Jack Skelley

By Emily Ann ZiskoMarch 6, 2024

The Pulsing Innards of Jack Skelley
FEAR OF KATHY ACKER produced by CONJUGAL VISIT in collaboration with MISFIT TOYS COLLECTIVE, Illusion Magic Lounge, Santa Monica, February 29, 2024.

A flash of red taillights: The satin stage curtain of the Illusion Magic Lounge in Santa Monica parts, and a member of the Greek chorus in fishnets and silver booty shorts instructs the audience to keep their hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. Play ball!

Confused? Buckle up. Like its source material, the stage adaptation of Jack Skelley’s Fear of Kathy Acker is not for the easily daunted. Skelley’s novel, written in installments for an alt-lit punk mag in the 1980s, was rereleased by Semiotext(e) last year to the cult-like acclaim of young ladies and gentlethems of the alt-literati—including yours truly. On a basic level, the frenetic odyssey of sexual deviance and self-loathing follows Jack, the narrative’s hero, as he drives across Los Angeles ruminating on perverse fantasies and Dodgers tickets. More deeply, the book is a revolt against pop-consumerism wrought by the Reagan-era “greed is good” ethos that, in its 40 years of gestation, has choked out American culture.

Now, the masterful hands of writer and co-director Siena Foster-Soltis have brought Skelley’s work to the stage. The show is produced by Conjugal Visit in collaboration with Misfit Toys Collective; in it, an entirely female and nonbinary cast rearranges the pulsing innards of the book into an explosive treatise on being a woman in the arts. Over the course of the play, the struggling playwright Siena (a Frankensteinian creature of her own making) morphs into Jack, the play’s antihero. The result is a three-act metanarrative in which Siena at first doubts her artistic ability yet later gains the audacity (and privilege) only Skelley’s identity—that of a man in his sixties still enjoying a kind of micro-celebrity for the raunchy novel he completed in his twenties—can offer her.

Of course, in doing so, Siena/Jack undergoes a transformation that leaves them facing an existential void embodied by Endora, the witch-mommy repurposed from the 1960s sitcom Bewitched and expanded upon by Foster-Soltis (Endora plays a relatively minimal role in Skelley’s book). Here, Endora’s curse of discontent weaves a trap that no one—not even the voice of Dodgers baseball, Vin Scully—can avoid. Through it all, a Greek chorus of Death Drives decked out in cheap lingerie and plaster-cast nose extensions provides a vehicle for some of Foster-Soltis’s most compelling, albeit occasionally convoluted, writing.

Toward the end of the first act, by which point Siena has fully (and literally) embodied Jack in an attempt to combat her writer’s block, the protagonist attends a party where a member of the chorus tells Jack how much she loves his work and expresses her hope that he’ll read her autofiction in exchange for her admiration. The pair proceed to fuck in a corner as, inspired by their passion, a voyeur pouts; she, too, wants to do something, and so jumps up and down while screaming, “I think I’m interesting!”

Suddenly, houselights flood the audience. The music turns off, the Death Drives collapse from exhaustion, and I see myself reflected in the large, mirrored set. In this new and horrible light, I appear as a young woman in the audience—one of many—who has also asked Skelley to read her short stories, and who also believes that they are interesting. The consequent undercurrent of rage propels Foster-Soltis’s self-contemptuous satire for two more acts. Her caricature of gender, sex, relationships, and fame draws parallels between the powerlessness of a woman in her twenties and that of a man in his sixties.

I left the theater thinking about Siena’s journey. In the play, she traveled all the way through herself, into Jack, and out the other side. And what did it get her? A three-night run.


Photo of performance by Gary Leonard.

LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Emily Ann Zisko is a writer, filmmaker, and the literary editor of Currant Jam magazine. Her written work has been published in the Beloit Fiction Journal, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Currant Jam. Her web series, Play It by Ear, is available on the Karen Twins Productions YouTube channel. She lives in Los Angeles.


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