Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
For the past few years, the neighborhood below Loring Park, where Red Eye is located, has become a hotbed of development, with high-rise condominium buildings crowding out low-rise blocks of shops, restaurants and services. Nowm Red Eye has a date with the wrecking ball. The final production at their current home coincides with the retirement of both Must and Busa, marking a major turning point in the company's history. Ever reaching for the unexpected, Red Eye has chosen to mount Her's a Queen, one of multi-disciplinary artist Neal Medlyn's "Pop Star" seven-part series of plays drawing inspiration from recent pop celebrity and the carnival of media coverage they receive. Her's a Queen is about Britney Spears. Other subjects of the "Pop Star" series include Lionel Ritchie, Miley Cyrus, Prince, and Michael Jackson.
But let's step back. To say Her's a Queen is about Britney Spears is a stretch. More correctly, it is a fantasy about a devout fan's obsession with Spears, drawing bits and pieces out of her biography, quotes, snips of her music, and other artifacts of popular culture from the past few decades. The playwright, represented by a narrator, freely has inserted odd bits attributed to his own biography, speaking to the phenomena of an over-invested fan who blurs the boundary between their own life and the subject of their fixation.
Miriam Must has the central rolenot as Britney Spears, who is not a character in the play, but as Miriam. In the play, the central character acts out her conception of Spears, and then plays herself as a Spears obsessed fan. Got that?
Unlike Neal Medlyn, I am no student of the lives of pop stars. Before seeing Her's a Queen, what I knew about Britney Spears could fill a sentence or two. But I did my homework and studied up, so now I know that the Britney Spears portrayed by Miriam Must overlaps with the real Britney Spears in some big issue ways, but is far from an accurate portrait of the star. The show focuses on episodes of dysfunction, easy to find if you thumb through the tabloids while online at the grocery check-out, but overlooks her amazing achievements (I had no idea!). Here's a small sampling: ranked by Forbes as the world's most powerful celebrity (2002), highest paid woman in the history of the music business (2012), youngest woman to have five albums debut at number one on the Billboard charts (it's in the Guinness Book of World Records), and her first perfume for Elizabeth Arden broke the record for first week gross when it was released in 2004. Her's a Queen gives us none of that.
What Her's a Queen does give us includes: 1) Miriam glomming on to Britney's over-the-top commitment to purity and chastity vows, which includes audience participation in reciting a vow of purity; 2) psychiatric hospitalization, voluntary and involuntary; 3) drug use, with the administration of a piece of Bit-o-Honey whenever Miriam becomes overly wroughtthis effectively wipes out all recent memories and thereby restores calm; 4) a discussion of the merits of paintings depicting the crucifixion of Jesus and the inclusion of blood in said paintings; 5) giving birththis actually happens to the character Peainapod, and the baby ends up being the stuff of nightmares (in life, Britney did loose custody of her two sons for reasons not revealed by the legal authorities); 6) speaking in tongues, harkening to Britney's attending a southern Pentecostal church as a child; and 7) a cuddle party, which Peainapod states very firmly is non-sexual, and then transforms into a dance party with audience members joining in happy-energy dance moves reminiscent of a teen music video. There's a lot more in 75 minutes, but you probably get the idea. Or maybe not, as it is anything but predictable.
As this chaotic collage of celebrity melt-down goes on, the Narrator is a role that seems to be a bookmark for playwright Medlyn, provides the source of some of the lines and actionssome from an MTV documentary on Britney, some items reported in the press, some from other pop performers, some (he freely admits) based on his own childhood experiences. Fragments of Britney Spear songs are sung periodically, usually an occasion for Miriam to snap back into the recognizable form of Britney, the superstar. The other cast members, (Kevin McLaughlin, Paige Collette, and Chloe Tarnowski) pitch in with all the vim and verve they can muster.
Miriam Must is a fearless performer, and she throws herself 101 percent into her role. She has the physical stamina of a person half her age which is a good thing, because the part is physically demanding, calling for being wrestled down to the ground (for the administration of Bit-o-Honeys), crawling, leaping, an dancing. She conveys the drive to rid her mind (or Britney's mind, however you interpret it) of the slings and arrows of the press, the constant hunt by the paparazzi, the self-inflicted drive to be perfect, and the challenge of being known as a serious artist. Those things press on her, and drive her to seek escapes that are as ridiculous as they are short-lived. Must conveys all of this psychic chaos as if a human version of the Whac-A-Mole game, never knowing where the varmint will show up, and battling it down as fast and furiously as she can.
The other cast members all do their parts to provide boundaries for Miriam/Britney to bounce off of, with Kevin McLaughlin, conveying sincerity that twists itself into irony as the Narrator, but it is really Must's show, giving an amazing performance that is fitting for her final time out as a member of the company she co-founded 35 years ago. Director Steve Busa has staged the show to take full advantage of the theater's large performing area, allowing for playfully sweeping movement one moment, a moment later having Miriam curled up in a corner, the lights (design by Søren Olsen) narrowing down to cast laser focus on this wounded bird. Skyler Nowinski's sound design ensures we can hear the text and recorded sounds coming from all parts of the expansive stage. Liz Josheff Busa and Isabella Busa designed costumes that capture the pop world zeitgeist on view.
I can't say Her's a Queen is my favorite play, or even that I fully understood it. Maybe I needed to be better versed on Britney Spears. But I am so glad to have seen it, for Miriam Must's amazing performance and the go-for-broke direction Steve Busa has given to this work, a powerful tribute to the legacy of commitment Red Eye Theater has had, and a bittersweet occasion as its founding leaders' swan song.
Note: Red Eye promises an update on the company's future and possible relocation after the run of Her's a Queen.
Her's a Queen, through September 29, 2018, at the Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $20.00, Students with ID - $10.00. For tickets call 612-870-0309 or go to redeyetheater.org.
Writer: Neal Medlyn, adaptation by Celeste Busa and Steve Busa; Director: Steve Busa; Set and Projection Design: Liz Josheff Busa; Costume Design: Liz Josheff Busa and Isabella Busa; Lighting Designer: Søren Olsen; Sound Design: Skyler Nowinski; Choreography: Scott Stafford; Stage Manager: Jayce Hanson.
Cast: Paige Collette (Peainapod), Kevin McLaughlin (Narrator), Miriam Must (Miriam), and Chloe Tarnowski (Farris).