Vogue Men’s Fashions

Urban Garden Performing Arts
213 Fayetteville St.
2nd Floor
Through July 27

An ex-lover was getting ready to move out of state. “What I think I need the most,” she told me, “is a fresh, unhaunted landscape.”

I wished her all the best. Particularly since I already knew that isn’t how hauntings usually work.

That disquieting moment came back to me the other night as I watched Vogue Men’s Fashions, the unorthodox but compelling new theatrical collaboration by Urban Garden Performing Arts. This show is easily the strongest I’ve seen from them to date.

The show opens with the entrance of John (John Jimerson), a young man who purposefully strides into the second-floor studio of the former Raleigh Ensemble Players space. It turns out that he has brought a lot more than a digital video camera and tripod with him. Memoriesand a few ghostshave followed him into the room as well.

These specters have better production values than most, thanks to visual artist Jon Haas’ atmospheric contributions that are projected on the back wall of the space throughout the performance. But as this evocative tale unfolds, we uncover a plot point that could be just as disconcerting: What if we in the audience are actually a part of his unearthly (but persistent) entourage? Or what if we aren’t, but this man is convinced that we are? Those are two of the smaller questions raised in Richard Butner’s evocative script, which is distributed to the audience prior to the performance.

This solo show gets much of its impact from the unusual collaboration between performer, designers and artistic director PJ Maske that was initiated nine months ago. As part of the group’s “Other White Man” project, Maske asked her collaborators to consider their experiences growing up as white men in the South during the last several decades. Among the questions the group considered: What were they taught about being a man in this culture as they were growing up? And what have they learned differently since then?

Having grown up in the small-town South myself, I can report that it makes an enduring sort of sense when Jimerson’s character reports feeling “disunified” and “diffuse.” A jagged and broken set of beliefs, folkways, expectations and prejudices has left more than one generation of men grappling with a map that no longer has much, if any, bearing on the world they live in.

We see one face of this dysfunction in the production’s location: the back of the clothing store that once stood at this downtown Raleigh address. In it, a man in flight from his own conflicting recollections seeks a ceremony that might allow him to reintegrate, and, in the script’s words, “assume a solid and unified form.” Jimerson’s take on this troubled, hyper soul is never less than riveting. Under Maske’s direction, his character is driven to a recital of sometimes manic, sometimes nerveless confessions to a camera that he cradles at times as gently as a lover.

But exactly who is it that he can never get close enough to, on the other end of the viewfinder? That revelation, along with others, await those who take on this rewarding psychological mystery.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Southern discomforts.”