The Dynamic one-woman shows ’s 2014 season is ending with a bang. Its three last productions for the year, Once (a joint collaboration with the Gordon Frost Organisation, reviewed last month), I’ll Eat You Last and Pennsylvania Avenue are all running throughout most of December.
Pennsylvania Avenue, a one-woman cabaret-style play by Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith is promoted as follow-on to her smash hit, Songs for Nobodies, which was also written for virtuoso singer Bernadette Robinson.
This time Robinson is channelling American singers from the 1960s to the ’90s in her role as Harper, the retiring Social Secretary for the East Wing of the White House – address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The one act play is centred in the Blue Room, as Harper prepares to leave the White House after 40 years of service, with her one box of memorabilia in hand. Surrounded by portraits of former presidents, and pulling out different photographs, letters and even underwear from her box, Harper takes the audience on a musical history lesson of pre-Vietnam and beyond.
Murray-Smith uses a similar writing device to the Tom Hanks’ movie, Forrest Gump, with Harper claiming responsibility for a number of significant social milestones in that period of American presidential history.
Harper intersperses her own story of success, sadness and longing with that of the White House social engagements. One of the more controversial performers at the White House was cabaret singer and actress, Eartha Kitt. As Harper tells her story, providing a big gravelly vocal impression of Kitt’s ‘If You Go Away’, we learn that she was blamed for Kitt’s anti-war statements at the 1968 White House luncheon which stalled the singer’s career.
Along the way we hear snippets of Tammy Wynette, Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. She belts out Barbra Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and brings the house down with her Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’.
And if you are still wondering about the underwear, well the knickers belonged to Marilyn Monroe. A very young Harper was there when Monroe famously sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to JFK, and it was Harper who saved Marilyn from showing a panty line, suggesting that Monroe merely remove them before she took to the stage.
John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last – like Pennsylvania Avenue – is a one-woman, one act play. Centred in Tinseltown, it too has a celebrity theme as the audience is invited into the lounge room of legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, brilliantly performed by Miriam Margoyles.
Without even climbing from her heavily cushioned divan, where she reclines, anxiously waiting for the phone to ring, Margoyles gives a 90 minute monologue and the audience is captivated.
Logan – whose play Red about abstract expressionist Mark Rothko was produced by the MTC in 2011 – attended one of Mengers’ famous dinner parties. As he expressed it, Logan was the least famous person there and so Mengers paid him no attention. However, she intrigued the playwright. Following her death in 2011 he began investigating the possibility of telling her life and was given permission to utilise a long feature by journalist Peter Biskind, written for Vanity Fair in 2001.
At her prime, Mengers was managing some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As she gossips, Mengers waits for a call from her long standing friend and ex-client, Barbra Streisand. Cher, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Ali MacGraw, Nick Nolte, and many others were all managed by Mengers.
As she shares her deliciously wicked stories she drinks, chain smokes cigarettes and a little weed, while willing the phone to ring.
Mengers has no interest in life beyond her ‘twinklies’. Hollywood is the centre. There is no politics. No real life. No outdoors. No exercise. In fact, for Mengers, life comes down to dinner parties and passionately advocating for her clients with directors.
When Mengers eventually stands – having tired of waiting for Babs’ call and needing to prepare for her dinner party – the mask drops. The alcohol and weed have dulled the mind and Margoyles reveals the vulnerability and poignancy that had so fascinated the playwright in 2008.
Two huge performances from outstanding female performers. Both worthy of a visit.
Pennsylvania Avenue to 23 December, The Sumner.
I’ll Eat You Last to 20 December, Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Review by Penny Mulvey