Imperiled democracy under the microscope

Special to The Times

World-class performance artistry graces “Big Head,” playing through Sunday at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.

Denise Uyehara’s latest multimedia work places this interdisciplinary artist alongside any festival favorite in recent memory, raising the bar set by previous efforts “Headless Turtleneck Relatives” and “Hello (Sex) Kitty.”

“Big Head” starts austerely, against a white projection screen with a single black cube upstage right. Uyehara launches an account of burning her hand on a Fourth of July sparkler when she was 5. From there, she transfixes the house, raising its consciousness in the process.


Uyehara, a virtual conflation of Laurie Anderson and Myoshi Umeki, here addresses imperiled democracy in the present war-shrouded landscape. Contrasting the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans with interviews culled from ethnic groups now regarded as “the enemy,” she uses indirect means to bring her central thesis into bas-relief.

These techniques include Uyehara’s mesmerizing pantomime of a windblown convertible ride in fluttering American flag headgear; an audience-participation take on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance; and her signature fusion of impish humor, sober recollection and kinetic self-commentary.

Under Chris Capp’s technical direction, the coordination of the designs with Uyehara’s mastery amounts to an extended coup de theatre, with Bo Crowell’s saturated lighting and the dual-source projections inspired.

Only at the end does Uyehara’s urgent purpose flirt with didacticism, overstressing the already firmly established point. This hardly negates her achievement, though, and fans of trenchant, comprehensive performance art should race to this must-see limited engagement.


‘Big Head’

Where: Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica

When: Friday-Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Ends: Sunday

Price: $15

Contact: (310) 315-1459

Running time: 65 minutes