Shows Worth Seeing:
By Elfriede Jelinek
Women's Project Theater
New York City Center Stage II
131 W. 55th St.
Box office: (212) 581-1212
For many years, the controversial Nobel-winner Elfriede Jelinek has written all her theatrical works as massive blocks of text with few stage directions and no conventional dialogue. Although she calls these works “plays,” she is indifferent to questions of production and cedes responsibility to directors for building theatrical events on top of her words. The works are logorrheic monologues dense with literary and pop culture references, replete with high- and lowbrow puns, delivered by figures who aren’t characters in the usual sense so much as composite voices, sites of projected fantasy and myth, and vessels for social polemic. Small wonder it’s taken so long for American theaters to take up the daunting challenge of performing the work.
Jackie—written a decade ago and premiered in German in 2005—is an excellent starting point, as its subject is an American icon: the beautiful, famously poised widow of a beloved president and billionaire whose public life was played out almost entirely as a mythical fairy-tale. Jackie is one of Jelinek’s “princess plays”—a series of monologues dealing with real and legendary female characters such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Princess Diana who exist in ambiguous time-spaces that may be after death, before birth, or both, and who struggle against their entrapping defining myths.
Working with an extraordinary actress, Tina Benko, the director Tea Alagic has breathed palapable life into Jackie and created a gripping 80-minute theatrical experience. The action is set in a filthy old, abandoned swimming pool (designed by Marsha Ginsberg) that shrewdly emphasizes the passage of time and physical beauty, and its multiple levels provide excellent opportunities for active physicality—as do the show's pointed props such as Barbie-dolls and life-size mannikins. Benko is especially fine, keeping the sometimes mystifying and cerebral words rolling as if every phrase made perfectly ordinary sense, finding and landing many moments of humor, and never trying too hard to impersonate the historical Jackie more than the play demands. Her particular energy—a wonderfully strange combination of indignation and unflappable calm—is what proves unforgettable and richly illuminating of the text (smartly and smoothly translated by Gitta Honegger). Against all odds, Jelinek has got a New York debut that does her credit.