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A CurtainUp Review
The Women’s Project Theater production of Elfriede Jelinek’s one-woman play, Jackie is two-fold answer. It is about the personal Jackie, and about “Jackie,” the icon. It delves sharply and unsentimentally behind the “plaster” facade encased around her, somewhat like the manufactured image of another icon, Marilyn Monroe. As the familiar cast cracks, viewers see the complicated, often contradictory woman behind the controlled image.
Translated by Gitta Honegger and driven with energy by director by Tea Alagic ( The Brothers Size at the Public Theater), Jackie intertwines myth and reality with complex introspection. And spurts of humor.
Jackie is part of the Jelinek’s 2004 Princess Plays, focusing on "messages about women who live through men," women including Snow White and Princess Diana. Jelinek has stated that her characters are not real human beings, but figures made of speech, living as long as they speak, and disappearing when they stop talking.
With her expressive face and thin wiry grace, TIna Benko (TV Showtime’s Brotherhood ) makes for an arresting Jackie. She depicts wit, pain and anger. It's a fanciful and pragmatic portrait of a woman admittedly insecure though viewed as composed. Benko moves with hyperkinetic energy for 80 minutes, sometimes dragging duct-taped gray mannequins of Jack, Ari, Bobby and her dead babies behind her. This is her “baggage.”
Benko does not look like Jackie or even speak like her, but through a non-stop monologue, convincingly illustrates the resentful battle between personal desire and social responsibility. (“They expect us public figures to be tough, and we have plenty of opportunities to toughen up”). She injects freedom into the buttoned-up Jackie image, shooting self-deprecating humor that ridicules the legacy. All the while, the “Jackie” image remains visible with a brunette wig covering Benko’s blond hair and a classically simple costume — low heels, sleeveless dress, raincoat, silk scarf and always white gloves covering bitten down nails.
This Jackie is accessible, eager to share her convoluted story with the audience, staring intently into someone’s eyes as she confides about the venereal disease transmitted by her husband. (“My stillbirths and miscarriages were probably a result of my getting infected”).
Much of the monologue harks back to two often-discussed subjects. One is Marilyn Monroe (caricatured by Barbie dolls), dismissed by Jackie as “light.” (“You, Marilyn, are nothing but light, the greatest uncertainty, sheer nothingness”). Jackie defines herself as more controlled and disciplined. (“I never shut myself in, and I never shut myself off from the victory of artificiality… I decided myself what and who and where I wanted to be.”) Yet, Marilyn, while doomed to disappear, remains a recurring focus in Jelinek’s Jackie.
The second focus is the terror of President Kennedy’s assassination and the trauma of Jackie holding his skull in her hand with pieces of his brain on her pink suit. Even as Benko reflects on the horror, director Alagic continues to make evident the keen awareness of her need for protective masks. Preparing for the funeral,she tries out different facial expressions to find which is the most effective for crowds to glimpse behind the black mourning veil.
Marsha Ginsberg desolate set that looks like an abandoned swimming pool, absent of all life. Brian H Scott’s lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound effects are sudden and dramatic, highlighting Benko’s stylized and cartoonish “Jackie” poses. Tom Watson's lacquered brunette wig and Susan Hilferty’s costume are explicitly detailed for the Jackie couture look. Jane Shaw lifts the somber moods with sarcasm of gongs, bells, music and most effective, the music of the era, as when Benko dances across the stark stage to “These Boots Are Made For Walking” (recorded in French), after Marilyn leaves their life.
Based on biographies, Jackie, Ethel and Joan by Randy Taraborelli and Jacqueline Kennedy by Elizabeth Veit, this solo play is the American debut for Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian playwright and winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature who's . She is best known here as the creator of the novel and film, The Piano Teacher.
Audiences will approach the play with their own Jackie baggage, Tina Benko has approached the text with an aggressive portrayal that is provocatively gossamer with a haunting familiarity.
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