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A CurtainUp Review
Making Marilyn

Here in Banff everyone feels as if they knew her. Everyone claims they shook her hand, or talked to her, or were her friend. But it's a lie. She had no friends. --- Scout, the teenager who DID become Marilyn Monroe's friend during the time she spent in Banff and Jasper shooting The River of No Return in 1953. Ken Cameron's narrator and the relationship are fictional, but the film shoot did happen and Monroe's iconic status as a sex symbol has stirred more than a few playwrights' imagination.

Ashlie Atkinson in Making Marilyn
Ashlie Atkinson in Making Marilyn
Having seen Ashlie Atkinson in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, I couldn't resist making time to see a play featuring her currently being given its New York premiere by a small new company at a tiny theater and for a very short run. The advance publicity explaining that Atkinson would be playing Marilyn Monroe was at once puzzling and intriguing. Atkinson's Rubinesque body doesn't exactly call up visions of the Great American Sex symbol.

I haven't seen any work by the playwright or the two-year-old Bridge Theatre Company so I had no idea what to expect from the text and whether this odd casting choice could work. However, if anyone could bring it off, I thought Atkinson might just be the one to do it. Also, fond memories of another off-off-Broadway play starring a plus-sized actress, Sitting Pretty, made me willing to invest the time to check out Making Marilyn.

Curiosity has often led me to rewarding experiences, but not this time. The play left me underwhelmed and did not reinforce my positive earlier impression of Atkinson's acting talents.

Making Marilyn turned out to be an interminably drawn-out, fussy production. Using a real event -- Marilyn Monroe's actually being in Banff to shoot a movie in 1953 -- failed to give that really sit up and take notice fresh twist to the coming of age story of a lonely boy with an unhappy home life. The idea of using the movie making tie-in to draw a parallel between young Scout's (Patrick Costello) sexually promiscuous alcoholic mother and the emotionally trouble actress never lives up to its potential for being interesting. Having an actress who, to put it mildly, looks nothing like Monroe, play both the actress and the mother amounts to stunt casting. As this fictional relationship between Marilyn and Scout involves his sexual awakening, there's also a scene with full frontal and rear nudity that is shamelessly and ridiculously drawn out.

Unlike Fat Pig and Sitting Pretty, this casting choice really has nothing to do with the play and doesn't strengthen it in any way. It's strictly a case of the director Robin A. Paterson taking the playwright's notes too literally; especially this: "It is my belief that it is an error to mistake the text for the play. Directors and actors are therefore invited to give free reign to their imaginations and to discover inventive ways to stage the episodic scenes."

Paterson has also used the playwright's advice to unleash his imagination in his second role as the production's designer. To be sure, the tiny Shetler Studio with its narrow ramp-like stage is a challenge for any director and designer and this young company doesn't have much money for scenic effects. However, the playwright has already made his text too busy by forward and backward jumps between 1953 when the movie is being shot in Banff and after Marilyn's death in 1963 when Scout is arrested on a Los Angeles highway for speeding. These back and forth jumps don't lend themselves to Paterson's very minimal and abstract staging. The series of panels used to indicate various locationss are confusing and the way they're moved about often irritating -- as is the blocking and lighting. While these panels are practically the only props, Paterson does introduce a note of almost bizarre realism by having the actors actually ride a bike down that skinny stage (watch your feet if you sit in the front row!).

The director has the show begin even as people take their seats by positioning two of the support actors in one of the panel cubicles playing a game of cat's cradle (if this is some sort of metaphor, I'm afraid it eluded me) and making Costello, guitar in hand, lean against another panel in what appears to be a semi-catatonic state. Unless there's a purpose to this sort of non-verbal pre-show performance it tends to come off, as it does here, as a form of cruel and unusual punishment for the actors.

With no intermission, Making Marilyn eventually becomes virtually unendurable and I noticed people opposite (the audience straddles the playing area) and next to me literally squirming in their seats. The people who entered the elevator with me after it was all over, broke out in a concerted sigh, like kids released after being cooped up in class on a warm, sunny day. Their reaction was probably best summed up by one man who exclaimed "I felt I was at ground hog day!"

Fat Pig
Sitting Pretty
Jodie's Body

Playwright: Ken Cameron
Directed and Designed by Robin A. Patterson
Cast: Ashlie Atkinson, Patrick Costello, Robin Mervin, Reyna De Courcy and Devin Scott.
Costume Design: Heather Klar
Original music by Michael Picton.
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.
Bridge Theatre Company at Theatre 54, 244 West 54th St. (between 8th and Broadway), 12th Floor. SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 11/23/05 to 12/05; opening 11/30.
Wednesdays through Sundays at 8pm
Tickets: $15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 25th press performance
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