by Byron Woods
It doesn’t always look that way, I know. But critics usually don’t go to a show for the purpose of basking in their own smugness and perceived superiority over the material, the genre, the company or the audience. (At least, they shouldn’t. When one does—and occasionally it happens, even here—little more is served than their own ego.)
But what do we make of a performance in which the performer appears to be doing this instead? That is the riddle posed by one Melissa Madden Gray, whose caburlesque performance under the stage name Meow Meow, Beyond Glamour, closes this evening in PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council.
By themselves, the 15 songs in this cabaret-concert-with-a-twist take us on a willfully eclectic trip. After an opening out of the American songbook, Gray quickly goes continental, mixing multiple selections by Edith Piaf and Astor Piazzolla with works by Bertolt Brecht and Monique Serf, best known during the 1960s as the single-name French songstress, Barbara. (Over half of the songs sung in this performance are in their original tongues; translations are provided for some, but not all.) These are interspersed with fashionably downbeat numbers by Radiohead, Fiona Apple and Patty Griffin (with an ostensible cameo by John Cage in the midst).
But, as Dr. Lamaze repeatedly observed, it’s all in the delivery. Unfortunately, Gray’s renditions of these works evokes more question marks at times than exclamation points.
Even though there's nothing remotely new about it by now, we don’t begrudge the frame Gray sets up here of a performer who's fundamentally challenged in a show that keeps threatening to fall apart. (A host of artists including Justin Vivian Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Lisa Kron, Anne Magnuson, Eric Bogosian—and Peter Schickele—have used the same trope going back at least to the 1980s.)
Our chanteuse dashes in late in her street clothes, suitcase in tow, railing that her dancers couldn’t make their flight due to the blizzard, that she broke up with her lover, by phone, the day before, that she hasn’t slept all night, and that, though she has nothing left in “this exquisite sack of a body,” she’s being forced to honor the terms of her contract. These backstory points are delivered with suitable histrionics while Meow Meow commandeers audience members ostensibly to prep for the show. Fair warning: Audience participation remains an ongoing hazard throughout this production.
So. Sympathies are duly engendered and stakes are duly raised. Or rigged. On with the show?
Of course—until, that is, song after song is interrupted or derailed in mid-number due to manufactured crises in choreography and stage management (see audience participation warning, above), the singer’s sudden choice to go for the land speed record in lyric recitation, or other contingencies.
Don’t get me wrong; once, it’s hilarious. Twice? Funny, without question. By the third time, Gray’s milking it. And when the sixth song is interrupted by variations on this gag, we're wondering why she bothered in the first place.
True, some numbers emerge here unscathed. Her performance of Piazzolla’s “Rinascerò” (I Shall Be Reborn) conveyed the fatigue of one forced to take a (very) long road toward justice, and her sardonic read of Brecht’s “German Miserere” had political bite to it. Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” conveyed a different sort of emotional exhaustion.
But by the end, Beyond Glamour seems little more than a take-down of cabaret itself. That argument can certainly be made; as Lisa Jolley recently observed, the art form tends toward nostalgia and self-absorption. Meow Meow’s character itself is clearly a left-handed tribute to imperious divas of yesteryear.
Still, the question remains: When an artist sabotages so many of her songs, what is ultimately conveyed—aside, that is, from the apparent fact that she and we should consider ourselves too hip to take them all that seriously?
Gray’s performance advises us not to get caught up in the sentimentality of too many of the numbers she’s chosen to present. That message is clearly—and repeatedly—transmitted, very early on in Beyond Glamour. But in a production that finally seems more schizophrenic than a deconstruction, it’s unclear if Gray has much more to say beyond that.