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Prettied Up

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Love, Janis

at the Royal George Theatre Center

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Circle Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Janis Joplin's life seems ready-made for mythologizing. Recordings of her raw, ragged, bluesy singing retain their power more than 30 years after they were made. And her life outside the recording studio--the drinking, the drugs, the sex, the constant touring, the outrageous clothes, and her death from a heroin overdose at age 27--makes her even more fascinating. A product of the psychedelic stew that was San Francisco in the mid-60s, she peaked just after the summer of love--which makes her story all the more exotic for those of us born a little too late to run away and live in a Haight-Ashbury commune.

Certainly Love, Janis--essentially a one-woman show played by two actresses, conceived, adapted, and directed by Randal Myler based on younger sibling Laura Joplin's memoir--means to capitalize on the myth that's grown up around Joplin since her death on October 4, 1970. But Myler seems uncertain how much to reveal.

Like all good stories, Joplin's has a fair number of shadows. She was undeniably an alcoholic, notorious for her ever-present bottle of Southern Comfort. She drank so much of the stuff that at times her life seemed a walking advertisement for the sickeningly sweet, high-proof, lowbrow liqueur. She was also sexually adventurous, enjoying lovers of both sexes. But her neuroses, her childlike wish to please coupled with an adolescent need to shock and rebel, and her crippling chemical dependencies interfered with all of her relationships.

Myler soft-pedals everything dark in Joplin's story. He alludes only briefly to her drug use and zips even more quickly over her sex life. Even her drinking is treated as something of a joke through most of the show. True, there's one scene in which Joplin talks about a doctor who warns that she's damaging her liver, but she quickly dismisses that idea.

In fact Myler's approach virtually guarantees that little of the real Janis will come through. We learn about her either through letters she wrote to her parents--quoted copiously in Laura Joplin's book and simply recited onstage here--or through fictional interviews based on material in that memoir. And Joplin's letters definitely sanitize her experiences in San Francisco. Even as she and the band she joined, Big Brother and the Holding Company, were rising to the top of the music industry, she was telling her mother that if this music thing didn't work out she'd return to college and lead a more conventional life. A move clearly not in the cards--and not one Joplin wanted.

One thing Myler does well is capture the look, feel, and relentless yea-saying shallowness of celebrity interviews. And as in a good puff piece, we do get the outlines of Joplin's life: her troubled teen years in Port Arthur, Texas; her early attraction to the beat poets and roots music; her drifting after college; her eventual arrival in San Francisco in 1966; her big break, getting asked to join Big Brother and the Holding Company; her triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival. What we don't get is the echt Janis. The most penetrating question asked during an interview less than a year before her death, when Joplin was clearly on the edge of mental and physical collapse, was "You look tired, what's up?"

Myler's decision to use only two actors, both of whom play Joplin, and an offstage "voice" that may be recorded also limits how far the show can explore Joplin's psyche. I suspect this decision was motivated mostly by a desire to save money on the actors and thereby increase the size of the backup band. At any rate, it's bound to disappoint any audience member interested in learning how Joplin's gifts and her problems might have been related. When she screeches, "Break another little piece of my heart now, baby," you know this is the angry taunt of someone who invites hurt, who yearns for self-destruction. Most people hide these feelings. But Joplin dared to wear them on her sleeve, dared to infuse every note and phrase with her complex, often contradictory emotions, and as a consequence created great work. She herself has little insight into that process, however, judging from what we're given here. And we're not given anyone else's point of view.

The two onstage--one who sings and one who writes letters home--create a schizophrenic show with a downside and an upside. This splitting works best when both Joplins answer interview questions: at times they give divergent responses or bicker for a while before answering. But sadly Myler doesn't use this tactic throughout the piece. Moreover, it's never clear whether the two Joplins are meant to represent different sides of her complex character or whether this is just a pragmatic choice: this way the producers don't have to find someone who can both belt out Joplin's hits and suggest her offstage life. Again, I suspect this was a practical decision, not a visionary one.

Love, Janis is also schizophrenic in the sense that the musical portion is so much more powerful than the spoken-word sections, throwing the whole show out of balance. Significantly, the music director is Sam Andrew, who helped form Big Brother and the Holding Company. And he's assembled as strong a blues band as you're likely to hear this side of a blues club: the musicians re-create note for note the songs that made Joplin famous. Every time Andra C. Mitrovich (one of two actresses rotating in the part of the singing Janis) begins to sing, Love, Janis is transformed from a mere whitewashed stage bio, despite the best efforts of Catherine Curtin as the speaking Janis, to an explosive rock show. Andrew, Mitrovich, and company work so hard to create the illusion that we're watching Janis herself shaking and crying and wailing onstage, it's hard not to imagine oneself in the San Francisco of the late 60s amid the creative ferment of the pre-Woodstock counterculture.

Myler seems to realize that we'll be let down every time a song ends and he returns us to the sanitized myth that passes for Joplin's life story here: he ends the show with a glorious three-song mini concert that leaves us wanting more of Janis. Just the way she left her fans long ago.

If Janis Joplin had not become a major star, she could easily have ended up like one of the two characters in Terrence McNally's 1987 Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Scarred, scared, and working nothing jobs--she's a waitress, he's a fry cook--they look back on lives damaged by alcohol and drugs.

Of course, that would have been a better end for Joplin than the one she met in a Hollywood hotel 29 years ago. And McNally's play is really about healing, about how these two wounded New Yorkers, both children of extremely destructive alcoholics, grope, gripe, joke, jab, bicker, and bitch their way into each other's arms. Written in a style that's at once hard-bitten and sweet, this rich, evocative play avoids the flaws of some of McNally's other work: cheap laughs, shallow characterizations, a refusal to trim when the play runs too long.

When performed by actors of the first order--like Kathy Bates, for whom the play was written and who appeared in a local production nearly ten years ago--Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune soars. It even works when the actors are still finding their way--or may never find it--like the ones in this moving but imperfect production.

Patti Paul is quite compelling as the once-burned Frankie, now secretly terrified of all relationships though she hides her terror behind a city girl's toughness. John Simmons is less convincing as Johnny: he captures the character's aggressive comical side--in a slightly better life, Johnny might have made a good stand-up--but seems less certain playing his vulnerable side. In a good production we should see long before Frankie does Johnny's sincerity when he says he wants something more than a one-night stand. In this staging, Simmons is never that sincere.

But if you're not moved by the ending of this play, you're the one with the problem. To fix it you may need to hole up in your room for a weekend and listen to old Janis Joplin records.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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