NEW YORK (AP) - Women’s Project Theater has had a crackling start to their 35th season, celebrating their new home at New York City Center with the well-received, disturbing “Bethany,” a play about the negative effect of America’s economic decline on the middle class.
Now comes the 2004 Nobel Prize-winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s irreverent, sharp-eyed imagining of the inner life of former first lady Jackie Kennedy. The one-woman play, translated by Gitta Honegger, is called simply “Jackie” but the script calls for such chameleon-like mood changes that maybe the title should have been pluralized.
A disarmingly bright production opened Tuesday night, crisply directed by Tea Alagic. Tina Benko, with a potent mixture of vivacity and brittleness, fearlessly and intelligently performs the acerbic, 90-minute monologue.
Jelinek has created a witty, sardonic creature, rather than the demure-seeming public Jackie familiar to Americans. Using a heavy dose of irony, she poetically presents fresh ideas about the uses of power and femininity (not feminism). Her examination of the authenticity of a woman who lived in a faked media bubble, controlled by handlers and public expectations, becomes quite poignant at times, as when Jackie muses that she is “only air and deep pain.”
Benko gives a magnificent performance, at times vulnerable, at others taut, wry and commanding, as Jackie races somewhat defensively through recollections of her life as a manufactured public figure. She’s apparently in a state of limbo that’s somewhat hauntingly depicted as a drained and decrepit swimming pool.
Tastefully dressed in a peach-colored outfit, winking and smiling graciously at the audience, Jackie takes ladylike poses and shares oblique or direct references to difficulties in her life. She’s repeatedly interrupted by a gong-like bell when it’s deemed by the unseen listener that she’s not been quite truthful.
“It’s a miracle that a picture like me can speak at all!” Jackie intones brightly. “I became a statue as ordered, with a bleeding man falling on it and no one forgetting his face during those last minutes.”
Harsh cracking sounds like gunshots also punctuate her sometimes gruesome story, as she recalls the defining moment in her life when her husband was killed. Bitterly, she also discusses his womanizing and subsequent sexually transmitted diseases that caused her to have several stillbirths and miscarriages, and tosses a more than a few barbs in the direction of Kennedy family in-laws as well.
Jackie hauls around three stuffed dummies that are labeled Jack, Ari (her second husband, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis), and Bobby (Robert Kennedy, also assassinated.) Bobby apparently represents the rest of the Kennedy family mythology, all part of her purgatorial baggage. Marilyn Monroe is represented by a blond Barbie doll.
Brian H. Scott’s spooky lighting design is a key element of the theatrical presentation on Marsha Ginsberg’s dead leaf-strewn, rundown swimming pool set.
With a fresh, non-American perspective, Jelinek makes clever, cynical observations about a life that was seemingly lived in the public eye. “I am completely private by being completely public,” Jackie notes. In the end, Jelinek provides a bittersweet view of an iconic American figure that we were all familiar with, yet didn’t really know at all.