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Profound Artist, Vicious Slut

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PIAF

Interplay

"You may, madame, be a vicious, foulmouthed slut," says a doctor to the heroine of Pam Gems's Piaf. "But I salute your artistry." The sentiment is Gems's as much as it is the doctor's. In her 1978 play, Gems shows as much fascination with Edith Piaf's abusive, self-destructive personality as with her greatness as a singer. That's because Gems sees the two sides of her subject as intertwined; Piaf's callous and whimsical mistreatment of friends and lovers and her ruinous dependence on drugs and alcohol, Gems repeatedly emphasizes, were part of the same outsize, grasping spirit that soared out in Piaf's larger-than-life voice.

Edith Piaf's life makes a hell of a good story--even as Gems tells it, with key events and characters compressed, fictionalized, or omitted altogether. Conceived rather like a Brechtian cabaret musical, Piaf relays its protagonist's life in a procession of short, slightly caricatured scenes. Eschewing the soap-operatic intensity a more naturalistic approach to this star-is-born saga would have conveyed, Gems instead depicts events with a bitingly funny ironic objectivity--the scenes are like a series of slightly rude drawings by a quick-sketch artist. Here's Piaf discovered singing on a street corner by Louis Leplee (the gay nightclub owner who discarded the young woman's real name, Gassion, and dubbed her la mome piaf, "the little sparrow"): "Get your fucking hands off me," she snarls. "I ain't done nothing." Here's Piaf knocking off a quick zipless fuck in an alley, or engaging in bawdy banter with her fellow hooker Toine, or drinking gracelessly out of the finger bowl at a posh restaurant, or raging over the way her post-WWII American debut has been received ("Who wants to see some little cunt looking like a war widow when they can have Doris Day?"), or bursting with rapturous if short-lived infatuation with yet another in the never-ending stream of men who moved through her life. Here's Piaf dishing the dirt with Dietrich, or moaning over the memory of her beloved boxer Marcel Cerdan (killed in a plane crash before Piaf had a chance to get bored with him), or shuffling painfully on crutches after a series of auto accidents, or collapsing in a fit of shakes and nausea from morphine withdrawal. And, every now and then, here's Piaf singing--squat, dumpy, but suddenly charismatic, transformed by her voice and the devastating expressiveness of her hands.

It's Piaf singing that makes Piaf compelling. That was true in her life, of course--no one would have paid any attention to a tramp like her if she hadn't sung like the French goddess of victory. And it's true in Interplay's midwest-premiere production of the play, thanks mainly to Hollis Resnik's astonishingly accurate impression of Piaf's vocal style. Resnik, a fine actress and superb singer, here completely submerges her own distinctive pop style to produce uncanny renditions of such signature Piaf songs as "Milord," "La vie en rose," and "L'accordeoniste." The throbbing vibrato, the whiplash inflections, the nasal placement, the special way Piaf had of bending certain notes, and above all the unfettered directness of emotional attack on the lyrics--Resnik has the style down cold, or rather hot. (The single disappointment is the finale, a rushed and truncated rendition of "Je ne regrette rien" that robs the song of its cathartic power.)

If the rest of the play doesn't rise to the Olympian levels set by the sung interludes (evocatively accompanied by the French-flavored sound of Don Miller's piano and Mark Weston's accordion), it doesn't much matter. Director David Perkovich keeps the narrative moving briskly, and he's cleverly surrounded the medium-height Resnik with an unusually tall supporting cast to suggest Piaf's diminutive stature. Pamela Webster is especially effective as Toine, and Shole Milos delivers a series of subtly shaded portrayals in several roles, including the doomed boxer Marcel. Gems's brash, bawdy script pays provocative tribute to one of the 20th century's most profound popular artists--and one of its most memorably vicious, foulmouthed sluts.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND

at the Shubert Theatre

Director-choreographer Graciela Daniele and singer-actors Carol Dennis and Sheila Gibbs deserve some kind of Sarah Siddons Award for their work in Once on This Island, the Broadway musical briefly playing at the Shubert as part of its national tour. The fluid nonstop movement Daniele has contrived for this mythic story of forbidden romance almost disguises the insubstantiality of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's adaptation of Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love. And Gibbs's and Dennis's robust emotional commitment gives considerable warmth to their stereotyped roles as the human and divine mother figures guiding a love-struck girl's destiny.

Outfitted with Flaherty's wispy ersatz calypso score, which drifts into the ether the moment it's over, Once on This Island tells of a black peasant girl who falls in love with a half-French mulatto youth on a tiny Caribbean island. After a brief romance he rejects her, but she's offered a chance at vengeance by Papa Ge, a demon of death whose main purpose in life seems to be imitating Geoffrey Holder's "try making that from a cola nut" laugh. She rejects the offer, of course, and her self-sacrificial decision is held up as proof of the forgiving nature of true love.

But because none of Flaherty's pretty but forgettable music or Ahrens's pseudo-exotic libretto has any authenticity, Once on This Island seems much ado about nothing. In such circumstances, one looks for whatever pleasures one can find. Happily, Gibbs's solid, loving characterization of the girl's foster mother and Dennis's boisterous comic turn as an earth goddess provide some spark; and Daniele's direction keeps the stage humming with activity, if not meaning.

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

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