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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Madwoman in the Volvo
I'm struggling to find an adverb here. "Gracefully" is trite, and as her NPR monologs and fiction routinely demonstrate, Loh isn't graceful about anything. One would hardly expect an autobiographical mid-life crisis play with the word "Madwoman" in its title to go down smooth and silky. "Hilariously?" But of course. With her wide eyes, manic disposition and decidedly oddball view of life, L.A.'s favorite geek poetess could probably mine laughter out of a dentist's visit, much less the onset of menopause.
So if her work as playwright and performer of The Madwoman in the Volvo is our barometer, then, sure, let's say that the 54-year-old Loh is aging arrestingly. Loh devotees who watch her at the Pasadena Playhouse will find the artist covering some familiar comic ground but in unfamiliar ways. Present day Los Angeles, with its foods, fads, trends and traditions is a quirky place, and Loh is a smart and cockeyed tour guide through the strangeness.
What's more, this time she has brought friends. In Madwoman, the performer shares the stage with two terrific veteran actresses. Caroline Aaron and Shanon Holt play both themselves and characters from Loh's life. Loh's voice and humor are now distinctive enough that hearing her jokes come out of another person's mouth is decidedly unusual. Holt and Aaron aren't playing Loh, but when they speak, the Loh persona is split three ways nonetheless.
To some extent, the humor is Madwoman's red herring. More so than she did in previous solo works like Sugar Plum Fairy and Mother on Fire, Loh is deepening and darkening her canvas. The consequences of her mid-life choices aren't always funny; in some cases they're tragic — and Loh is not afraid to shove the kookiness aside, halt the stage gimmicks, look her audience in the eye and give us a dose of depression, loss or death. Loh's skills as a storyteller are unquestioned, but in this work, director Lisa Peterson seems to have helped her bring out a new depth of emotional nakedness.
What begins as a larkish trip to the Burning Man Festival with a couple of party-minded writer friends takes an unexpected detour as Loh — 46 at the time — nearly gets lost in a sandstorm, starts an affair with her manager, Charlie, and ends her marriage. It's a messy, uncomfortable business and Loh, who opens the show quoting Dante's Inferno, recognizes her odyssey as a mid-life crisis. The distance of years permits her to relive these incidents with a humorist's perspective, but that's not the intent. Loh's tale is funny, certainly, but also dark and quite brave. When her brother, Eugene, counsels Loh to give her soon-to-be ex-husband ("Mr X") a certain number of hours to receive and process the bad news, Eugene's advice leads Loh into a memory of her brother's past. The reason Eugene knows so much about the human heart is enough to break ours.
Similarly affecting is the author's interactions with her mother who battled depression from early in Sandra's childhood. Loh, as the baby of the family, discovered tricks for bringing her mother (enacted by Aaron) out of the darkness. Those encounters are echoed toward the end of the play when Loh's own two young daughters pile into bed and try to cheer her up.
The above scenes notwithstanding, Madwoman is by no means an overly somber evening. Not only does Loh take us into the scorched and arty Nevada desert for Burning Man, she transports us across Los Angeles to divorced parents parties, on walks around Silverlake and inside the cramped and crappy bungalow she first occupies with Charlie. As followers of her radio monologues well know, Loh can highlight the absurdity of a thing or place simply by naming it. This skill holds equally true for low rent all-you-can eat chains like Hometown "Booofet" or for a person wearing a "beeeeekeeper's" hat. A couples' therapy session with Loh and Charlie (Aaron) presided over by a hilariously pinched therapist Dr. Stacy (Holt) accomplishes something I would not have thought possible: Holt actually upstages Sandra Tsing Loh.
When it premiered in January at South Coast Repertory, The Madomwan in the Volvo occupied SCR's more intimate Argyros stage. For the remount, Rachel Hauck's scenery fits comfortably on the more expansive proscenium of the Pasadena Playhouse. A series of tall light towers and a few tables and chairs for cocktail parties make up basic props. No projections this time.
Almost exactly one year ago in this very space, I wrote admiringly of Annabelle Gurwitch's "mid-life change" play I See You Made an Effort. . That solo play, performed by its author, was also quite funny, but Loh goes one better. She's airing her dirty laundry, throwing herself a party and letting her friends get in on the act. Best of all, we don't need to endure an NPR pledge drive to enjoy the fun or embrace the sadness.