When I go to the theatre I go in search of a particular experience. I want to be transported to another world, I want to see myself in new ways, I want to be visually and imaginatively stimulated, I want to understand the world differently.
In other words, I’m not easy to please.
So the idea that I could sit in my living room, watching the DVD of a theatrical performance and experience all of those things is, well, unlikely.
And yet it happened. And it happened watching a one-woman show, less likely still.
Tina D’Elia’s new show, The Rita Hayworth of This Generation, introduces its audience to a cast of scheming and manipulative characters who end up, surprisingly, charming us with the pleasure of their company. Whether it’s Carmelita, the cabaret singer and Rita Hayworth impersonator who wants only to make it big, or Jesus, the transgender poker champion who wants a lucky lady, or Rita Hayworth, who just wants out of purgatory, or the despicable Kelsey, host of the shows Stars that Are Living, Stars that are Dying and Stars that are dead…or even Angel, the Prop Butch, the show’s only sweetheart, we want more–more revelation, more laughs, more sex (yes, there is sex in a one-woman show!). D’Elia and her director, Mary Guzman, have created a hysterically funny play that reveals human ambition in all its selfishness…and how we want our lovers to serve this ambition rather than any sense of intimacy. But it is too smart a show to exclude moments of real humanity, the rarity of true generosity between human beings and the importance of that generosity in finding meaning as we grow, perhaps, awkwardly and humorously wiser. Carmelita, the wrong-headed and unlucky heroine of the story, is perhaps the most blind of the characters when it comes to recognizing real caring–but our frustration with her only intensifies our involvement with the story and our understanding of its meaning.
Tina D’Elia’s magic as a performer is that there are times when one is able to forget there’s only a single actor on stage. Whether in the first seduction scenes, where the desire she portrays is absolutely palpable, or in scenes in which Jesus tries to convince Carmelita to trust him, her commitment and imaginative reality are so strong that one can’t help but fall under the play’s spell. Her work is supported by Mary Guzman’s skillful use of lighting and blocking to support the many character changes. And let’s get real, in a one-woman show with actual back-and-forth dialogue, this is extremely hard to do. The slight shift of a shoulder and angle of D’Elia’s body work best during dialogue scenes, but one always follows and enjoys the changes of characters.
Let me not neglect to mention the magical realism of the play. I have long ranted about realism in theatre, and how film does realism best, so theatre better have some real innovation if it wants to stay in the game. Well, this is a play in which characters travel to a special room in the casino to meet and play cards with dead stars. I mean, really, when a transgendered poker champion sits down to deal in with the Three Stooges…come on, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Of course, the play is not quite perfect–D’Elia’s acting portrayal of Carmelita’s cabaret singer physicality is excellent, but her singing needs work; and the end of the play ties up all the plot questions too neatly without answering the most important–how does Carmelita author her own loneliness even after getting some degree of what she wants as a singer? But not quite perfect does not mean that it is not excellent–in fact, it is.
Tina D’Elia is a Boston native, and I, for one, think we deserve to get to see her show live in this town. Not only that–we need the show. Boston theatre got a jolt of aliveness when Diane Paulus came to town, but we need edgy new voices and this is one of them.
As an acting teacher interested in helping people to create their own work, I also feel that great examples of one-person shows would and could ignite a renaissance of a genre that has been largely absent in Boston since the Theatre Offensive stopped producing Out on the Edge.
Sometimes, it’s just the right thing, the right time, the right show.