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The Sunday Critic

Theatre Review: She Was Born



Last year a friend brought to my attention a quotation from the famed producer, playwright, and critic Robert Brustein that is much less sunny than he thought it to be. "The primary function of a theater is not to please itself, or even to please its audience. It is to serve talent." I take Mr Brustein to mean that theatre has no higher goal than to make it possible for genius to operate, fully and freely, whatever it takes.

 

As a showcase for the breathtaking Veronica Hunsinger-Loe, She Was Born does exactly that. The rustic backroom of the Tigermen Den ought to be packed for the rest of this run. 

 

In the program note, Nat & Veronica – a spin-off of the co-producer Skin Horse Theater, of which there are lately many – plainly declare their raison d’être: “… working with the limitations of one-person performance … create new material through clowning and improvisation … explore Veronica’s inner gremlin.”

 

As the title She, Hunsinger-Loe’s inner gremlin is a creature without precedent in my theatergoing experience. Dressed in a patchwork nylon body stocking to make a creepy-crawling entrance through the butcher paper-and-masking tape landscape that is She’s otherworld, every inch of her body painfully but comically askew (even her toes are expressive), eyes red-rimmed and mouth frozen in a hopeful grimace, Hunsinger-Loe wordlessly caws and coos the entire narrative: the life cycle of an unspecified parthenogenetic insect, asexually giving birth to a near-replica of herself. Who will, after She’s death, give birth to another near-replica in turn.

 

I must rustle up a new synonym for bravura. This is transcedent acting, over-topping an exceedingly high bar, sustained without apparent misstep for a full, solitary hour.

 

Hunsinger-Loe and her artistic partner, Nat Kusinitz (billed as director, but the lack of other credits persuades me that the pair developed every moment in collaboration), are not winging it. She Was Born is thoroughly researched. The ways of asexual reproduction are all here, rendered in low-materials, high-style form: gathering food, fashioning the cocoon, laying the egg ripped from her back. The narrative reaches a comic high point upon the new She’s birth, when what first appears to be Hunsinger-Loe’s finger (it isn’t) pokes first tentatively, then enthusiastically, through the cocoon.

 

Every detail is thought through. Massive drifts of paper that look to be simple set dressing reveal sad secrets. Miles of masking tape that seem to serve just the practical purpose of holding the set together underline the costs of the solitary She’s sole purpose in life, reproduction. The scary krrrrp! of the tape is used to especially good effect. (Only the lighting is inadequate. Two key moments that cry out for full black-outs, after death and before birth, remain backlit. I assume Kusinitz couldn’t safely manage the necessary set changes in darkness.)

 

If in summary this all sounds like the opposite of fun, in execution it’s enchanting. Enchanting, then alarming, ultimately heartbreaking. Even though you know the conclusion is foregone, you’ll long for a happier resolution. There are several stunning moments to cite, but let me stick with the one that came closest to breaking the spell: At the two-thirds mark a modern rendition of a classic shoop-shoop love song rises, and She does a dance for her daughter-to-be.

 

I groaned inside. Nothing is likelier to destroy the mood of a period piece, or a fantasia, than an anachronistic hey-kids-remember-this? music cue. But even this passage works because (a) though romantic in sound the chosen song is sad, even disturbing, in lyric, and (b) her awkward dance looks as if it’s pulled by force from Hunsinger-Loe’s confused, unwilling body. From the end of the song through to the final beats, She Was Born completes its perfectly paced transition from the comic to the tragic.

 

As we reached the end, my mind jumped about for the comfort of metaphor. She Was Born is about the necessary futility of Art … about the all-consuming cost of motherhood in a lonely society … about … oh god, never mind. She Was Born is the The Thing Itself. It does not compare. It gets compared to.

 

Instead of comparisons, let me resort to the second-laziest critical technique: superlatives. Finest show I’ve seen so far this year; finest performance, ditto. The definition of unmissable. She Was Born feels like a gift.

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

Published Daily