by Steve Desroches
At this very moment Saltine is looking through a spyglass preparing her return to Provincetown. The journey from her home on Eggs Isle, the island home to all who are now “too ugly and too poor” to live in modern-day Provincetown, is in mileage short, but is nevertheless fraught with peril as the only way to and from this oasis for the displaced is a rickety skiff with a broken motor. Nevertheless, she’ll find her way here. She always does, eventually planting her busted high heels into the sands of Provincetown to share the gospel of bohemia and broadcast tales of the ravages of nouveau-riche capitalism and the devastating effects of a society awash in competitive consumption, frozen rosé, and Botox.
Of course, Eggs Isle is a fictitious place, at least in terms of actual geography, and Saltine is the creation of artist Cody Sullivan, who made a splash from the moment of his arrival in 2019 with his sly and hilarious character ensconced in a perpetual autumnal color palette and class warfare, war paint. A native of Wrentham, Massachusetts, Sullivan arrived here via Chicago, where he moved after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, studying improvisational comedy and dabbling in drag. But it was here in Provincetown that he combined all of his training and artistic experiences to let Saltine loose after she’d been marinating in creative juices resulting in succulent and sublime performances throughout 2021 where Saltine would present live improvised podcasts on the beach near the Julie Heller Gallery. Those shows made Saltine, and Sullivan, a sensation for their originality and comfort that indeed despite economic challenges, Provincetown continues to attract new artistic voices, even in the face of waves of gentrification that have turned into tsunamis. Come the cooler weather, Saltine moved indoors presenting live radio plays on WOMR, Provincetown’s community radio station, with her Emergency Town Meeting live radio play the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, solidifying Saltine’s place as a satirical master pointing out some of the absurdities of life in Provincetown.
“The theme of all my work is the unfortunate reality that the town is not able to keep people without money here and what that means for the town,” says Sullivan. “I’m fascinated by the minutiae of town rules and how people use those rules. The Thanksgiving show was inspired by my very first town meeting. I just sat there at times and thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ It was amazing. And some of the moments in the show are verbatim what happened at the real town meeting.”
Sullivan makes it clear that his creation of Saltine exists, in that he speaks of her as someone he vaguely knows, but has never met because when he’s around, Saltine is out on Eggs Isle. She’s an amalgamation of a variety of influences, says Sullivan, starting with his mother, an office manager. Whenever he visited her at work, he’d raid the box of saltines she always kept in her desk. In addition to his mother, Saltine is part Nicole Kidman in the witch power film Practical Magic, and Quint, the crusty shark hunter in Jaws portrayed by English actor Robert Shaw. Dress all of that in vintage clothing and accessories and sprinkle it with a reverence for the spirit of 1970s and voila, Sullivan conjures Saltine, in a manner akin to saying her name three times in a mirror like an old school slumber party ghost story.
As part of that resurrection Saltine will be presenting a brand new live podcast, with her portraying all the characters as well as being the foley artist, this week for two performances at The Commons. Titled One Thousand and One Lads and the Formaldehyde Man, the piece is a gay love story set in the 1930s at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Maine. If it sounds unusual it’s because it is. When Sullivan introduced Saltine to the stage in Chicago, she’d frequently go on after a drag queen performing a Beyoncé or Lady Gaga number, complete with death drops and split kicks, changing the tenor of the evening for sure, laughs Sullivan. “I always want Saltine to be off the beaten path,” says Sullivan. And that journey has taken Sullivan and Saltine to Provincetown, a natural home for both in such a way that feels enchanted. But like any fairy tale such a spell can come with its hero fighting dragons as much as living happily ever after, though in real life both are done simultaneously. Moving to Provincetown and maintaining oneself here is a difficult tight rope act, especially for young people who are not wealthy. Sullivan admits he has an aching affection for Provincetown, enjoying small town life in a place that allows him to create, be himself as well as Saltine, and pursue his studies as an herbalist. Life is very, very good, says Sullivan, though at times the hustle to stay in town can be overwhelming and dip into resentment. Provincetown is indeed a fickle lover.
“Provincetown is very tricky,” says Sullivan. “She makes you fall in love and then you can’t leave.”
Saltine performs One Thousand and One Lads and the Formaldehyde Man at The Commons, 46 Bradford St., Monday, June 13 and Tuesday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is by suggested donation. For more information visit provincetowncommons.org or call 508.257.1748. To listen to past podcasts by Saltine visit saltineandsullivan.com.