The Willows Company is presenting the satirical comedy Jackie, An American Life. The Gip Hoppe “Saturday Night Live” comedy could be called a satire with respect. The play relates the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a comic book format.
Jackie premiered in 1991 at the Winter Academy in Orleans. It played at the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge, Mass in 1996 as a college production. It ran six months in New York in 1997 to mixed reviews. The comedy also played for one month at the Queen’s Theatre in London in 1998 where it received poor reviews. Richard Elliott, the Willows artistic director, read the script last year and decided that his company would present the west coast premier of the parody. He hired 9 actors to portray close to 100 characters from Jackie’s life.
In the style of Monty Python the playwright has written a gentle lampoonery on the excess of attention, adoration, and constant invasion of privacy throughout which Jackie retained her dignity and style.
Gip Hoppe starts the play with strains of Camelot in the background at an auction of Jackie’s posessions after the death of the great lady. Bidders bid up to 3 million dollars for “things” under Jackie’s kitchen sink. This opening scene sets the tone that follows. There are quick, some funny, some not so funny, scenes. Jackie begins as a teenager, growing up with a philandering rich father, and goes on to become Mrs. Kennedy, then Mrs. Onassis. We see the father teaching Jackie how to tease men in her later life. And, on the flip side, when she goes to an all girl finishing school the headmistress advises her and the girls "The tighter the dress, the bigger the mess."
The satire continues as Jackie meets the future president of the United States and they go on their first date. We see Joe Kennedy, who is portrayed by an unusual puppet and a god like booming voice. He gives his approval of the young lady. We see her become the fashion plate of the nation as the first pretty First Lady the country has seen in a long time. We witness the fateful trip to Dallas and the country wanting her to stay the official widow after the death of JFK. Then the courtship of the ship king and Jackie's death.
Many of scenes contain great wit and they are truly funny while other scenes just lay there without the zing to make this work. The scenes at the beginning of the parody are excellent with Jackie as a teenager. JFK’s debate with Nixon misses the mark as does the party at Sinatra's house in Palm Springs where the actor playing Sinatra goes over the top in his impersonation.
There are wonderful bits like Ethel being portrayed with babies strapped everywhere on her body. The puppets are wonderful, especially the marionette who manufactures cod cakes and keeps spilling them all over the stage. The props are also great and they keep piling up on the stage as the comedy continues. There is a wonderful scene where someone says to Jackie “Let me walk the door to you” and a portal wheel front door is pushed onto the stage. Even at the end there is a funny bit with a prayer to the Greek gods which include “Zeus! Orestes! Neiman! Marcus!”
The nine cast members are all talented performers in their own right. I admit these are not people you would normally see as comedians and sometimes the timing is off. Some of the puns just do not work.
Throughout all of this mayhem, Tanya Shaffer as Jackie comes off as a normal individual who does not want the limelight. She appears to be the only sane person in the story. She is charming and she does an excellent impersonation of Jackie.
Steve Marvel is outstanding as Jack Kennedy. He has the voice and mannerisms of the president down pat. His scenes with Tanya are outstanding. Cassidy Brown also is good as Bobby Kennedy. The rest of the cast is superior in many scenes although occasionally the timing is off.
The props by Michael Loche add to the hilarity of the production and they make for some great sight gags. Best are the giant pants representing Joe Kennedy. The set by Peter Crompton consists of columns with a small stage on the stage in the background. A very ingenious set. Richard Elliott’s direction is impressive. I give him great credit for bringing the caricature comedy to the west coast.
Jackie: An American Life runs through October 27 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd., Concord, Ca Tickets are $25 - $30. Call 925-798-1300 or visit www.willowstheatre.org