Look at Me | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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LOOK AT ME

Majik Theatrical Company

at the Apollo Theater Center

The press release for Look at Me, a one-woman show featuring cabaret performer Cissy Conner, boasts that Conner's character "says all the things people have thought but never voiced." I beg to differ. Serena Ann McCall mouths every inanity and stereotype about life and love that has been voiced in the past few centuries, and adds nothing new to the mix. On top of that Serena's life is so extraordinarily different from your average Jane's that we have nothing but the inanities to relate to.

Look at Me is the story of one woman's life from shortly before she's born until her death. We see her on her birthday at various points--watch her grow from an excited fetus to a legendary child-woman painter. She maintains the same optimistic personality throughout her life: during her early years, as the emotionally abused child of an alcoholic mother and physically abusive father; through young womanhood, when she watches her father get married, for the third or fourth time, to her roommate; through a trying marriage to her college art professor; and into fame--and seclusion--as a brilliant painter. Her attitude toward life never changes. She wants one thing only, forever until eternity. You guessed it: to be loved.

Every single monologue focuses on Serena's unending search for love. Of course she is constantly disappointed, first by her father and then by her husband. When she finally finds a true love he dies on her, and then she is in anguish over the fact that in heaven she'll have to share his love with his first wife. Serena is the most desperate woman I have ever met. At one point, she's complaining about her husband and how she doesn't love him; still, she says, "I would have gone to bed with a werewolf if he said he loved me." Now, we all want to be loved. But this urgent searching--the fact that the search overrides everything else in her life--is somewhat pathetic. And if Serena is a modern Everywoman (which she is apparently meant to be, despite her unusual life), it's a little demeaning.

Which brings up an important point. This one-woman show was written by two men, Benjamin Bradford and Brian Eller. Men are certainly allowed to have insights about women's lives. Some men--though I would argue very few--have written marvelous women's roles, and some women have written interesting men's roles. But much of Bradford and Eller's script just doesn't ring true. What it means to be a woman is brought up often. Serena checks to see what sex she is before she's born. She talks about penises a fair amount. She discusses sex and its implications for her. One whole scene is devoted to her first period. But very little of Serena's experience of womanhood was familiar to me. That menstrual scene, when she thinks she's bleeding to death, was particularly annoying. My friends and I spent the entire intermission talking about how false it was to our own experiences and to any we'd heard of.

I question the motivation of two men writing a show that purports to reveal the essence of womanhood (its original title was I, Woman). I question the playwrights' decision to make their everywoman a victim. I really question their choice of a child-woman for the part (Eller also directed). Cissy Conner is absolutely adorable. She's cute, she's slender, she's perky, she's charming. But she does the entire show in a little baby-doll voice with baby-doll inflections; she ends most lines with a little Marlo Thomas giggle. When she says on her 41st birthday "Forty-one. I thought I'd be young forever," you can't help but think she still is young--in every sense. She seems to have lived the life suggested by the title poem in A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six: "But now I am six, / I'm as clever as clever, / And I think I'll be six now / Forever and ever." Conner's Serena is the eternal six-year-old, still trying to be daddy's little girl even when she's 89.

Conner's acting betrays a lack of technique as well. She is unable to differentiate clearly between the times when she's speaking to someone in her life and when she's speaking to the audience. If she's speaking to another invisible "character," she never places that person within the room but shifts her attention all over. She rarely adjusts her movements and vocal patterns to fit the current period of her life. And her emotionally charged scenes are filled with facial contortions that have no true emotion behind them. Conner's most charming moments came when she was thrown off balance and slipped out of character--when she discovered that she still had a bow in her hair from an earlier scene, for example. "What's this?" she exclaimed. "No wonder I couldn't get the hair band to stay on. Why didn't anyone tell me?" At those moments Conner was just a person, an honest person, and she was absolutely delightful. Unfortunately, those moments had nothing to do with the play.

It's a good thing Conner is genuinely adorable, because otherwise Serena would be quite unlikable. Of course there's the whining about love, but Serena also says things like "Art is no big deal. Either you can do it or you can't." She's a terrible tease, exclaiming about her virginity one minute and taking off her shirt in front of her art instructor the next, mocking his sexual excitement and laughing at the size of his penis. Her mother gets written off immediately, because she smoked and drank while Serena was in the womb. Mother is almost never mentioned except to be derided. Serena is utterly miserable when she moves to Paris, supposedly because the weather is gray all the time. She has no girlfriends, and despite her loneliness seems to have no desire for them. Real love can only come from a man apparently. Were it not for Conner's charm, it would be awfully hard to get behind these male writers' stereotype of a female survivor.

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