Audience Required: Brace Yourself to Become Part of the Show
at Berkeley Rep's Kamikaze Cabaret
By Lou Fancher for SFWeekly
Sequined and feathered yet serious and decidedly female, An Audience with Meow Meow is to cabaret what lions are to kitties.
Calling herself "Mother Courage of performance art," Melissa Madden Gray shines as Meow Meow in a musical about the performer-audience relationship that is best defined as "kamikaze cabaret."
Meow shreds expectations — and sheds fabric in the form of costumes — like a feline sharpening its claws on living room furniture. At the heart of the Meow Meow vortex is a narcissistic star wrapped in satirical packaging. Is she maternal or monster, poof-y or profound, growling alto or gossamer soprano?
The answers to these questions are delivered in a tour de force directed by Kneehigh Theatre artistic director Emma Rice, with terrific decoupage set designs and costumes by Neil Murray.
The play's setup is simple: The dangerous diva strays from her script and is abandoned by her cavorting cohorts, dancers Sergei and Jonathan (Michael Balderrama and Bob Gaynor). Even the producers give her the boot, but by then, she's already won over the audience with her vulnerability and agility.
Abandoning herself to solo-ism and revealing the life of an artist through song and soliloquy, Meow is the ultimate performer. She's vulnerable, bravely improvisational, and strikes a perfect equilibrium between gentle and jarring as she corrals the crowd and coaxes perfect strangers to forget their inhibitions and fondle her figure, literally and imaginatively.
If the show has parts that fall flat — an attempted suicide with a prop knife misses the tragicomic mark — it's understandable. After all, Meow's — and Berkeley Rep's — central concern is rolling out the postmodern art barrel, cracking it open with an ax, and allowing the juices to flow. If there are pits in the ferment, so be it: They add tooth and texture to the brew.
The four-member onstage band is the perfect foil, adding straight man laughs in one vignette by supplying the wine bottle Meow "hides" behind an extended arm and chug-a-lugs. More importantly, it lays a fine, sophisticated foundation for her considerable vocal range.
The play gains traction in moments when Meow's songs and cabaret-style soundbites become political. Her off-hand remarks occasionally get lost in timing missteps, but most land like well-directed missiles. Arrangements by music supervisor and conductor Lance Horne, especially "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," a multi-genre "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," and "Be Careful" proved music an essential part of the show's arsenal.
Rice returns after directing last season's electrifying Tristan & Yseult with an equal assault on theater's fourth wall. (Note to audience: Crowd-surfing and audience participation in the form of stroking, stripping, and hoisting the star is included for some lucky ticket holders, no surcharge.) Murray's lush, flattened-flower backdrop, a bodice that fits Meow like a precarious paper cut-out, and ever-changing wardrobe add up to an equally edgy transience. Like life, changes are unpredictable and swift.
In the end, asking the audience if she'd be forgotten, if there is a God, if recycling is really recycled — perhaps a nod to zealous Bay Area environmentalists — Meow isn't theater at all. She represents life's dilemma: wondering if we've been adequately held and loved and will be remembered.