Touring this summer, “Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth” is a caveman tale that takes a detour into the world of virtual reality — among many places. | ATTICUS STEVENSON
For someone who can’t be pigeonholed — humorist? playwright? poet? clown? comedian? performance artist? horror writer? LGBTQ icon? — the phenomenon of nature known to the public as Dandy Darkly is totally distinctive.
Living fully up to his pseudonym, Darkly is a Southern Gothic steampunk grotesque given to flamboyant recitations and flights of persiflage accompanied by courtly and commedia-like presentationalism. He is the personification of decadence, and he knows it, and audiences love him for it — from his local queer fanbase here in New York to his even more rabid one abroad, where he’s had four sold-out hit shows in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The popular performer has two undertakings to tout: a new book of his monologues entitled “Dandy Darkly’s Six Hundred and Sixty-Six Tales of Sex and Death, Volume One,” launched last week at the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division, and a national Fringe Festival tour of his solo show, “Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth,” which starts this month at festivals in Tampa and Orlando, then moves to Providence in July, followed by Chicago and San Francisco in late summer.
Dandy Darkly brings his madcap horror stories back to the page
Dandy Darkly is the creation of Brooklyn-based Neil Arthur James, who began performing the character in 2010. Originally from rural Georgia, James graduated from college there in 1997 with a degree in theater, tried his hand as a conventional actor for a while, but began to have more success writing columns and op-eds for publication. The character of Dandy Darkly emerged from a fiction blog James created. An invitation from the Stonewall Inn to perform his writings live is what first brought the character from the page to the stage.
The typical Dandy Darkly monologue is extravagant, over-the-top, violent, and extremely ridiculous. One of his more popular pieces is “Bearskinner,” a sort of horror-infused tween summer camp story — part pseudo-autobiographical confessional, part Dr. Seuss, and part “Silence of the Lambs.”
“This little clown has been living inside me forever,” said James. “There is an eight-track recording of me at age five telling Georgia ghost stories. My grandfather was a wonderful natural storyteller. He influenced me a lot. It’s been really rewarding, watching the process of Dandy developing organically over the years.”
James is a wordsmith par excellence, forging great dense confections of self-expression that ought to be the envy of most armchair writers and poets. The extreme musicality of his writing seems to contain echoes of great American authors, especially Southern masters like Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, but ground up in a parody mill with other elements like hokey porn, horror, and fantasy. Shockingly, James claims to have grazed very little among the greats.
“I’m really an outsider when it comes to that,” he said. “I come out of classical theater and clowning. I write and satirize popular culture, and as such I am a font of movie trivia and television tidbits — subconsciously I do perhaps tap into writing styles of authors like Thomas Wolfe, but it’s the theater and the horror cult film world I critique that I’m most enamored of. I’ve also been influenced by classic rock artists like the Eagles or the Beatles much more than fiction writers.”
Oddly, you can see it. His monologues are imbued with the clarity and power of pop songwriting. The leap between his Cha-Cha the Caveman or Mister Timothy and the Beatles’ Rita the meter maid or Mean Mr. Mustard is not the size of the Grand Canyon. James also admires many contemporary performance artists. Names he mentions in this context include Penny Arcade, Taylor Mac, Desiree Burch, Paul Soileau, Justin Sayre, Peter Michael Marino, Killy Killer Dwyer, and Jenny Lee Mitchell.
For someone who knows him primarily through his stage work, the process of reading him is both familiar and disorienting. The voice is there, but disembodied, like an echo. On stage, there is a powerful visual component. Dandy Darkly is a clown, with an elaborate baroque costume and make-up that takes the artist over an hour to get into prior to every performance.
“Believe it or not, I had one critic who said I shouldn’t perform the stories in costume, that the writing should speak for itself,” laughed James. “But I think it’s absolutely necessary. The part is shamanic. I need the mask. Dandy is more outgoing than I am, more of a people person. At the same time, I am more friendly and gentle. Dandy says horrific things. Horrible things happen in these stories. A pirate eats a mermaid!”
Though Dandy was originally a creature of the page, for seven years now he has been living primarily in theaters and cabarets. Returning him to his original format has had its challenges.
Our favorite straight-shooting storyteller in a promo photo for 2015’s “Dandy Darkly’s Trigger Happy.” | BOBBY MILLER
“For the book, I needed to pull back a little. Onstage I do things like break the fourth wall and make asides directly to the audience,” said James, citing punctuation as an example of what “had to be conventionalized” to “fit into the constraints of the page. But the process was also helpful to me as a writer. Going back and looking over older work was instructive, seeing how the work progresses over time. I also noticed several tricks I have that I tend to repeat, and will know to look out for.”
But that self-criticism is balanced with a healthy supply of well-deserved self-regard.
“Ultimately, I think as artists we need to be true to our voices and try to create work that makes us laugh the loudest, swoon the hardest, and weep the most willingly,” James said. “Some people may say it’s selfish or egocentric to be moved by your own work. I know some artists who are very detached from their work, but I’m quite the opposite. I love Dandy because he makes me feel totally comfortable in my skin, but also utterly like an alien being — which I adore.”
DANDY DARKLY’S SIX HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SIX TALES OF SEX AND DEATH, VOLUME ONE | By Dandy Darkly | Gaybird Press | $7.99 | 134 pages | dandydarkly.com