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A Queer Punk Vaudevillian’s Surreal Take on ‘Titanic’

In some ways, turning the movie “Titanic” into a farce about climate change makes a lot of narrative sense. Instead of an iceberg — which has melted, of course — the ship goes down because it hits a mountain of underwater garbage.

In other ways, “Titanic Depression,” a new 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 may be even 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 in the movie). Jack, the Leonardo DiCaprio love interest, is played by an octopus, who sneaks aboard the vessel disguised as a fanciful 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 whole thing is a metaphor about the seeming futility of fighting industrial capitalism and impending environmental doom, but it is 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 the parts.

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

“Jibz is able to address all kinds of issues — whether it’s body dysmorphia or childhood trauma or climate change — with the most hysterical absurdity and in ways that you would never expect,” said Ed Patuto, director of audience engagement at the Broad in Los Angeles, which programmed and commissioned her work. “She’s a great performer, in that you 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 become 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 subject of a well-received 2021 Sundance documentary.)

“Titanic Depression,” which was commissioned by the Brooklyn cultural venue Pioneer Works in 2017 and will 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, a lot for an artist who refers to her crew as “dirtbag queers.”

As her vision for “Titanic” grew, “it just kept getting more money and more attention,” Cameron said, with an avant-gardist’s note of surprise. “And then I kept feeling like it had to be bigger and bigger.”

“What keeps it fresh for me is knowing that I can just make myself something to do, if I want 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 is what it wants to be.”

Her instincts are being recognized all over: She will 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, is also forthcoming.

But even among 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” when they first saw Dynasty Handbag. “We were laughing uncontrollably,” he wrote in an email. “It felt like a hallucinogenic experience.”

With a sharp jawline, an askew wig and features that contort 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 (lately she’s been partial to “Hart to Hart”), “but covered in goo, and a lesbian,” she said.

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

The show, originally developed with the artist and technologist Sue-C, and presented as part of the New York Live Arts festival Planet Justice, is performed with a video backdrop; our heroine is live onstage, and everyone else is animated, mostly from Cameron’s own drawings, and sometimes 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 is 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. In the bowels of the ship, they find a throbbing dance party. (Cue techno beats, not fiddle.) Cameron choreographed a wiggly duet with her cephalopod lover.

A lot of the hourlong show is 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 think it’s powerful, too. It makes the silliness stronger.”

Jibra’ila Cameron, 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 kid,” she said.

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

Later, hoping to become 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 remains remarkably the same: a misguided take on femininity, a studied failure of aesthetics. “She’s wearing tights, but they’re underneath a bathing suit,” Everitt Howe noted. “It’s all layered wrong.”

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

Cameron is not related to the “Titanic” director James Cameron, but he’s in the show, alongside industrialists like Benjamin Guggenheim, who “made his money in 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 you wouldn’t be making this ridiculous show without me!”

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

“I feel like what I want to evoke with this is making something out of nothing — this tiny hope, survivability,” she told her crew. “People make music no matter where they are, what socioeconomic class. I get to come out in my showstopper outfit — that’s the showbiz part I really like. And then it gets weird.”

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