Saturday, March 02, 2019

Review - The Monica Meditations / Brandi Alexander - A Me, Too Double Feature - 4.5 stars

It’s honestly hard to know where to start in discussing the double bill of one-woman shows, The Monica Meditations, conceived and performed by Paige Collette, and Brandi Alexander, conceived and performed by Tatiana Pavela, with Maggie Rogers in the director’s chair.  I guess I should start by saying you should see them, though it’s a one weekend only run so depending on when you read this, it may already be too late (final performance is 10pm tonight, Saturday 3/2).  But as with previous Paige Collette outings I’ve seen - including a collaborative two-person show with Pavela, Buttercream and Scotch; as well as Bitter Victory, Sweet Defeat; and Food Blog - it’s always worth getting a marker down, to see where she is, and perhaps where she’s headed.

“What if, when I told him I had a crush on him, he just said ‘Thank you. I’m flattered. Have a good night’?”

Collette’s half of the evening is up first, excavating the late 1990s scandal of Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky - when he was President of the United States, and she was a White House intern.  Clinton was 49, married, the father of a 15 year old teenage daughter; Lewinsky was 22.  It was a wildly imbalanced power dynamic between the two, and though both parties claim the relationship was consensual, c’mon, the man knew better.  And everyone involved, including the country, deserved better.  These are The Monica Meditations, however, so Monica is front and center and Bill is only an offstage supporting player seen through Monica’s eyes, and a brief slide show that appears toward the end of Monica’s time on stage.

“And because my pre-frontal cortex wasn’t fully formed yet, I was very young, and I believed him.”

The main challenge here is the notion of shared history, or the lack of it, in the audience.  I imagine some people in the audience weren’t alive, or at best were barely toddlers, when it all happened twenty odd years ago.  Monica asks for a show of hands at the beginning to gauge audience knowledge of the story.  It was a mixed bag.  People who lived through it the first time probably come in with a pre-existing opinion of Monica.  Those that didn’t may be wondering what the significance of that cigar as a prop is all about.

“For this recipe, we need a wide mouthed jar.  Let’s face it, I’ve been called worse.”

The piece is operating on a couple of different levels - there’s Monica talking to the audience and walking us through the affair’s high and low points, and the timeline of how it all erupted into a national scandal; there’s Monica commenting on the existence of the show itself, and Paige the actress’ obsession with the story.  At the very start there are some Paige Collette moments with the audience, trying to set up a framework for the storytelling yet to come.  And there are moments when Collette breaks off, casually dons a blond wig on top of her brunette wig, on top of her already brunette hair, and does a schticky home shopping network routine involving items related to the affair, now for sale to the general public.

“Now I’m gonna make a Waldorf salad and talk about Linda Tripp.”

This being a Paige Collette creation, there is also, of course, the incorporation of food and drink, and the preparation of same.  It makes for some vivid images.  Collette pulls her ingredients throughout the night from the myriad of bright blue gift bags scattered around the stage topped off with red wrapping paper.  A handful of red roses appear, then acquire a vase and some water.  Monica clutches this vase close to her chest as she recounts her tale.  Later Diet Coke makes an appearance, and she pours that into the vase as well, and then *drinks the Diet Coke from the vase of roses*.  The color and creamy consistency of homemade mayonnaise is best not dwelt on too long.  Later it provides the dressing to a Waldorf salad which, mixed in a big plastic bin with a signature blue dress, provides a necessary stain to drive the ill-fated plot forward.

“[The dress] was from the GAP, because this was a true American love story.”

Non-food props, such as the blue dress, take their place in the narrative as well.  Some props are amusing - that blond wig dropped on the floor to represent her false friend Linda Tripp; some strangely apropos, with modern echoes - passages from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; and some vaguely unsettling - the casual use of an American flag in several configurations made me a bit uncomfortable (probably on purpose).  And then there’s the sentimental - dance numbers at the beginning and end involving Monica’s long flowing brunette wig on a foam head, and the quickly unraveling duet with a man’s shirt and tie, and the chair they sit on.  The skill of Collette as Lewinsky is that she’s so convincingly lost control physically as a character by the end, you almost think the actress may have lost control of her dance as well.  But it’s clear in the smaller details that the mess is a controlled and intentional mess.

“They say every rose has its thorn.  But will a rose record 20 hours of your phone conversations without telling you?”

Does the piece depend a little too much on some of the pop ballads from the time to do the heavy emotional lifting?  Maybe a little.  But in context, Sarah McLachlan’s Do What You Have To Do is always going to take up a lot of space in the room, no matter how you deploy it.  It’s almost impossible to invoke Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing unironically anymore.  And despite the fact that a young Monica sang it in a school talent competition, anything from Le Miz, especially On My Own, is going to feel used up and worn out in a theatrical context.  Though even here, particularly when she bellows a line or two away from the audience and directly into the wall of the Bryant Lake Bowl theater and we can still hear her perfectly, Collette almost wrings something new out of the use of that show tune.  I also understand that the music is trying to reinforce the core of the performance, which is the hardest thing to hang onto - even with everything that happened, there’s a part of Lewinsky that hurts because it really did mean something to her at the time.  And when Collette is getting some genuine emotion from Lewinsky’s dual betrayal, first by the man she was involved with, then by the supposed friend she confided in who recorded their phone calls and turned her over to the feds, it makes me want to spend more time with her, not less.  Maybe clearing out some of the filler could give that exploration more room to maneuver, and deepen.

“I’m sorry if I offended anyone with the use of the word feminist.”

Tatiana Pavela’s titular alter ego Brandi Alexander may be a fictional creation, but her presence is no less compelling onstage than Lewinsky.  She may almost be too compelling for some people to take - and believe it or not, that’s a compliment.  The insert in the program with a heart next to it warns that the second half of the evening “contains strong themes of sexual assault” and if folks are overwhelmed by this at any point, they can feel free to step out.  Sexual assault, of course, is a more genteel term for rape.  The word rape gets a real workout during this performance.  Good luck keeping track with the number of times Brandi says, or sings, the word.  And it never loses the power to shock or discomfit you because Pavela’s performances makes sure to inform the word with its full meaning whenever she uses it.

“It’s an idea that’s years ahead of its time, like the notion of equal pay, or consent.”

There are some confusing things about Brandi Alexander, and I think Pavela might get more of the responses she’s looking for if she cleared a few of them up.  For instance, by the time we’re well into the performance, we become certain that Brandi is a stand-up comic.  That’s not entirely clear right from the start, and as a result, the audience is a little unclear about the way they’re supposed to engage her.  Her entrance is almost dance like, and her introductory remarks could just as easily be the preface to the first song of a cabaret act.  Because song figured so prominently in the first half of the double bill, we’ve been primed for anything.  In isolation, Brandi being a stand-up comic might have been more of a given assumption.  A couple of straight up jokes (dark and uncomfortable in content would still work) might have made Brandi’s purpose and occupation more quickly understood.  Plus, Minnesota audiences are naturally reticent and shy.  We need a lot of permission to feel we can speak up, or even laugh.  More explicit cues, to go with the explicit content, might have helped at the start.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Because the whole point of Brandi’s act is to take the format stand-up comedy and make it something that you find yourself wondering if you should laugh at.  If you get us laughing at first, and then we start to wonder, that serves Brandi’s purpose more.  Wait, should I be laughing at that after all?  Is it OK?  Am I a horrible person to find this funny?  This is no laughing matter.  Yet Brandi begs and almost demands that you laugh at appalling things.  She’s laughing, sure it’s terrifying but lighten up already, join in the amusement at the horrible behavior of men.  And it’s not hatred of all men, just the ones who rape, and rape is a common right of passage for men and women in this world she’s invited us into - a world not divorced from our own reality.  She’s most interested in destroying the reputation of her own rapist - a fellow comedian who, well, what do you know, he’s the main act she’s opening up for this evening with her set.  In the midst of this, Brandi has a song - which is basically just the word rape repeatedly musically, then growled and screamed while she grinds around on the floor, evolving for a moment into (I kid you not) the melody line for the Star-Spangled Banner.  There is also an amazing sequence - sharp as a razor and very tightly written - where Brandi keeps answering the age-old joke set-up, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” with strategies women use to avoid being raped.  (Because there were streetlights on the other side, because there was a group of men approaching, because there was a bodega on the corner over there and they’d be more likely to hear her when she screamed, etc.). Great stuff.

“Why aren’t any of them in prison?”

Suspension of disbelief is sometimes difficult with Brandi because in her own words, she considers herself old and fat and ugly.  And the actress is none of those things.  Are Collette and Pavela skinny little stick figure fashion runway models?  No, but honestly how many of us are?  And they are not obese by any stretch of the imagination.  By most people’s objective standards they would be considered “regular,” attractive human beings.  “Normal,” if you will.  Now, given Monica and Brandi’s body issues, sense of shame and even self-loathing over what happened to them, and what their willing or unwilling part in it was, that very well may be coloring the way they present themselves to us.  And that disconnect may be something else we’re supposed to sit with and think over.  But that point is a little fuzzy, and in Brandi’s case the self hatred is so present in nearly every self-deprecating joke that you worry just a little bit about the line between performer and subject.  And again, that unsettling audience experience may be exactly what Alexander and her creator are aiming for.  So I may well be asking for relief she doesn’t plan to give me.

“The male equivalent of the little black dress.”

This being a one woman show, the audience also realizes that even though he waits just offstage in the reality of Brandi’s world, we will never meet her fellow comedian and rapist.  Since that’s the set-up, part of me really wanted those lights not to go out quite so quickly at the end.  Brandi has turned her set into a scathing indictment of the man waiting just offstage.  They have not tried to turn out the lights on her, to play her off with music or send out security to take her by force from the stage.  No one has stopped her.  So she clearly has the upper hand.  I sort of wanted Pavela to give it one last twist of the knife, to dare the man to take the stage away from her when she was done.  “Come on out, man.  They’re all waiting for you.  Take the stage, the spotlight is yours.  Enjoy.”  It’d be a small victory, but I think Brandi, and the audience, have earned it.

“Let it simmer - like a night of regret.  Soon it’ll be stinking up the whole place.”

The Monica Meditations and Brandi Alexander give an audience a lot of things to laugh and then think twice about.  Here’s to Collette and Pavela for bringing us these stories.  And here’s to them finding a way to hang around longer next time.  The final performance is tonight, Saturday, March 2nd at the Bryant Lake Bowl.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

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