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Curtain Call

Denver mourns the loss of its favorite bipolar, one-armed comic/poet/playwright.

In researchng this story, I read seven or eight of Don's poems. My favorite is titled "Sometimes Love Is a Class 4 Felony."

Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, and I really try

but there are still a few adversaries I would like to sodomize

Portrait of the artist as a high-school graduate (above); a more recent photo of Don Becker.
Portrait of the artist as a high-school graduate (above); a more recent photo of Don Becker.
Don Becker lost his hand in 1986.
Don Becker lost his hand in 1986.

with a claw hammer, and blind with knitting needles, and castrate them

and force them to eat their own testicles, and put M-80's in their assholes

and have them beg for mercy while I am torturing their loved ones

with a cattle prod.

I would, of course, never do this, and I try not to dwell on these

seemingly antisocial musings

But deep within me lurks a demented brute, so ugly that I can't

believe in a loving God, or personal redemption

Only my ugliness is real.

My damnation is certain.

The feeble urge towards goodness is merely the egotistical fear of my own face.

I learn to pull my own strings,

And smile,

And sympathize,

And comfort,

And console,

Because I'm trying to teach you that God has left us

and all we have is each other,

and maybe love is still possible,

but it would probably be better for both of us

if you don't piss me off.

"There's a membrane in the psyche between the conscious and unconscious," explains Pinkola Estés, who is also a psychoanalyst and author of the bestseller Women Who Run With the Wolves. "And people are sane when they stay on the conscious side of that membrane, but it's on the other side of the membrane, in the unconscious, where creativity comes from. Don spent so much of his time on that side — the dark side, the shadow, where the horrible and scary things come from. But that's also where all the gifts come from, and I think that's where Don lived."

In the documentary on his life, Don talks about the focus and exploration common in a great deal of his works. "A lot of people quit asking the fundamental questions of the day," he says. "Why do I suffer and die? What are my responsibilities to other people? What is truth? What is reality? And most people kind of go through that in their teens, their early twenties. They don't get the answers, so they either just stop asking them or they buy into a ready-made religion."

Don wasn't able to do that, and as he continued to grow as an artist, he continued to search. "He kind of tried different religions throughout the years," says his mother, noting that he was in a Unitarian youth group in high school. "He was in a Quaker group for a while, then he was into divine science. Then I think he went back and started going to a Unitarian church again there on Cap Hill. He may have gone to the Episcopal Church, too. He was always looking."

"I think that after losing his arms, he started looking at more serious issues," explains Brent Johnson. "God and life and where we are going and why are we here and what it's all about. That started to bleed into his work. History is full of people who were mentally ill and very creative, and maybe sometimes stability is at odds with creativity. I don't know that Don ever had the choice, but I think that if he had, he would have taken creativity over stability anytime."

Nowhere is Don's spiritual quest and creativity more apparent than in his play, Lucifer Tonite, a piece he described on his resumé as a "highly-acclaimed one-man show about God, Satan, good, evil, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll."

A series of monologues ruminating on the vexations of science, religion, time and other heavy topics, when it was first staged in 1996, Lucifer featured Don in the role of the Devil — although his version was a bathrobe-wearing, beer-slugging philosopher who patiently explains how evil is dependent on human beings, how it's not all his fault. The two-hour play never relents, never slows down to explain the weighty material, but rather charges at its own deliberate pace toward several brutally honest moments.

In one scene, Don strips shirtless and removes his prosthetic arm, faintly pleading, "Jesus, if you love me, leave me alone." In a video of the production, the audience sits completely transfixed, silent, agitated.

"Lucifer Tonite is without question the most important piece of avant-garde theater I have ever seen in Denver," Westword's theater critic wrote at the time. "The most truly experimental, iconoclastic and intelligent work by a contemporary performance artist.... Nothing stands between the viewer and the meat and meaning of the stream-of-consciousness monologue by the Devil himself. Becker is in your face for two hours, and his performance will shock viewers not used to cutting-edge excess."

Though Don penned and acted in several other plays — his first, Back on a Limb, which is highly autobiographical, Kurt Cobain Was Right and Subgenius PoliceLucifer remains his legacy and has been staged multiple times around town.

Actor Nils Swanson, who for years went by the stage name Nils Kiehn, is intimately familiar with Don's work, having played the title role in a 2000 production of Lucifer. "The way Don's characters thought was just out of this world," Swanson says. "To me, he was like Sam Shepard and David Mamet on acid. There were all these great characters that he so cared about, but it was like, 'Where did you come up with this?'"


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