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Review: Love Among the Shadows in Edgar Oliver’s ‘Victor’

Among the vast and sacred realm of idolized love objects — the one inhabited by Dante’s Beatrice and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Robert — the title character of Edgar Oliver’s “Victor” stands tall. Not that he was, particularly — tall, I mean.

According to Mr. Oliver, whose “Victor” is the latest in his singular series of elegiac performance pieces, this homeless denizen of New York City was roughly 5-foot-7. But with his bald, “beautiful” head and formidable biceps, he bore an alluring resemblance to the cartoon hero Popeye the Sailor Man.

This was, evidently, a comparison that Victor Greco, to use his full name, appreciated. And in the lobby of the Axis Theater in Manhattan, where “Victor” opened on Sunday night under the direction of Randy Sharp, you can see the two (unopened) cans of Allen’s Popeye Spinach that Mr. Greco once gave Mr. Oliver as a gift.

The foodstuff is among a trove of objects — otherwise mostly notes and poems, both literary and lewd, scrawled on fliers, bags and newspaper scraps — on display beneath glass, like artifacts of a distant, nobler era. You’ll want to check them out after the show, if for no other reason than to confirm Mr. Oliver’s statement that “I know it sounds as if I’m making this up, but it really happened.”

For two decades, Mr. Oliver and Mr. Greco, who died earlier this year, inhabited the same territory. Literally, that means the East Village of Manhattan and, specifically, the area around Tompkins Square Park, where Mr. Oliver was the last remaining tenant of a decrepit boardinghouse. (That edifice was the subject of “East 10th Street,” the unforgettable 2009 show that introduced Mr. Oliver as a solo performer.)

But, really, the world they shared eludes cartography. It exists somewhere in that endless stretch summed up by the title “From Here to Eternity,” the name of a movie Mr. Oliver watched with Mr. Greco when the latter was in a nursing home in Brooklyn. Mr. Oliver eloquently annotates that title in the manner of a silent movie star like Lillian Gish.

When he says “Here,” he places a pale and long-fingered hand on his heart; for “Eternity,” the hand slides into the air, like a fluttering phantom dove. It is in the twilight space between those words that Mr. Oliver and the people he conjures reside, in splendid, spectral isolation.

As a performance artist and raconteur who regularly contributes to the storytelling project The Moth, Mr. Oliver has emerged as a sui generis bard of urban solitude. Though he grew up in Georgia — in a lyrically dysfunctional family that was the subject of his great stand-up memoir “Helen & Edgar” — he is, above all, a New Yorker and of a breed that is becoming extinct.

By that, I mean the sort of people who settled here four and five decades ago because New York was then a city that accepted and absorbed the displaced, the marginal. They occupied the squats and parks and streets, which Mr. Oliver transforms into a village as cozy as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and as otherworldly as a fairy-tale forest from the Brothers Grimm.

In his sonorous, Vincent Price-like voice, which turns vowels into echoing chasms of darkness, he chronicles the adventures of a nomadic tribe who occasionally come together, always respecting one another’s essential apartness. “Sometimes you have to let the underworld in,” Mr. Oliver says, describing an invasion of his house’s coal scuttle by a group of vagrants. “And sometimes you have to chase it out.”

Thus he and Victor might sit wordlessly and companionably on the stoop of Mr. Oliver’s residence. (That was also a place that Victor liked to sleep on.) Once, after sharing a late-night joint, they wandered over to St. Mark’s Church.

There they found a violinist in a black cloak by the wrought iron gates. He began to fiddle, and Edgar and Victor danced for what seemed like forever to his “wild Gypsy music.” A trio of (real) musicians is on hand to suggest what the couple heard that night. (Paul Carbonara is the music director, and David Zeffren did the essential, sepulchral lighting.)

There was a physical component to this relationship that went beyond waltzing. Mr. Oliver has spoken before of being impossibly in love with men he worshiped shyly and hopelessly. But with Victor, there was something like consummation.

“To me, he was a real man,” says Mr. Oliver, “not a homosexual like me.” That’s an unusually blunt and categorical self-description for Mr. Oliver.

The portraits he creates more often defy the usual identity pigeonholes of contemporary parlance. His gallery of the lost and lonely is an almost Victorian creation, an immortal slice of sentimental Gothic, in which the dispossessed melt into the shadows, forever swaying in the night to the strains of a Gypsy violin.


Tickets Through Oct. 26 at Axis Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, www.axiscompany.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.

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