How many of us have, at one time or another, been so much consumed by love that nothing else in the world mattered?
John Kelly has. The product of this New York performance artist's experience with tortured and unrequited love is a mixed-media theater piece called "Love of a Poet." Scheduled to be performed this weekend at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it is the final presentation in the museum's 1991 "Off the Walls" contemporary performance art series.
Based specifically on the 19th century poetry of Heinrich Heine and the music of composer Robert Schumann's song cycle "Dichterliebe" (Poet's Love), Mr. Kelly's Obie award-winning show examines through song, dance, music and visual projections the intense emotions and frustrations of a hopeless, incurable romantic.
"The idea of someone getting sick or even suicidal over love appealed to me," Mr. Kelly said in a phone interview from New York this week, "because it is an extreme situation, and extreme situations lend themselves to my sensibilities as a director and performer."
It's also a situation he can relate to personally, having once experienced near-suicidal tendencies from his own unrequited love. "For me, performing comes out of a desire and an ability to get in touch with my feelings via music," Mr. Kelly said.
Having no recognizable label to give his work, Mr. Kelly calls it performance art. Personally, he considers what he does theater, but a theater of music and sound, not just voice. The term "performance art," he admits, scares a lot of audiences, but he is confident that they are growing to understand what it has to offer, even though the form can't easily be pigeonholed.
"The hallmark of performance art is that it has so many elements," said the 34-year-old performer, who has trained as a painter, sculptor, dancer and singer. "All I ask is that the audience is open and they leave their notions outside, and that is asking a lot sometimes."
Mr. Kelly, who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., has performed all over the world, from experimental downtown cafes in Europe to major uptown venues like the Lincoln Center. He said that the challenge in creating "Love of a Poet" was to portray this kind of character, a romantic, without making him a cliche. First, he said, you present the audience with the cliched character and then you go beyond it.
"In this case, he gets suicidal, but he gets through it, he survives," explained Mr. Kelly, adding that the performances are as much for himself as they are for the audience. "It helps me get on with my life."
'Love of a Poet'
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.