Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Never Let Go: A One-Woman Titanic
Also see Richard's recent reviews of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Walter Cronkite Is Dead, Barrymore and Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas
Never Let Go: A One-Woman Titanic is a mad dash of a parody of the 1997 movie Titanic and more specifically a revival of a 2019 original stage production that first debuted at the Monocle, in the Grove, created by Equally Represented Arts (ERA). The play was co-written by director Lucy Cashion and by Will Bonfiglio, who also appears in it.
The short but memorable double bill begins with one of a revolving assortment of brief opening acts. On this particular night it was a delight to watch the young local stand-up comic Paul Cereghino first warm up the house. Next comes the star of our show, an eternally fresh and oddly uneasy, perhaps unintentionally sensuous comic raconteur, Rachel Tibbetts. Taking full possession of the role Kate Winslet played on the silver screen, she plunges us into a one-woman extravaganza based on the most successful motion picture of all time (until Avatar broke that record in 2009, though both movies were directed by James Cameron).
We are told here that the original film had to take up not one, but two VCR tapes to accommodate Cameron's epic tale of the horrible shipwreck of 1912, which took the lives of more than 1,500 people. But "time and distance" still make a great recipe for ribaldry, even in this case. Clueless, ironic historical shock value and the reenactment of a bumbling path to survival (as Madeline Kahn might have done it) are the real standards for excellence in this comedy.
The hideous sinking of that hubristic luxury liner is the backdrop for both film and parody. Ms. Tibbetts fills lifeboats with laughs but mainly plays out a lot of fantastic, ultra-deep girl-fantasies as Rose Dawson herself, who was the fictional girl from the film, in this multi-layered reenactment.
But it's 26 years later now, and Rose (speaking to us in 1938) is earnestly beseeching Hollywood to immortalize her own experience as a Titanic survivor, by casting her as her own younger self in the yet-to-be-made film, which bears a suspicious resemblance to the 1997 classic. You can probably forget about that, though. It's mostly just a really smart, wild ride through the ultra-fandom surrounding Titanic.
Never Let Go works so well and is so oddly touching because Ms. Tibbetts taps into the same vein of comedy as Gilda Radner, who used to perform a sketch about little Judy Miller, a bored Brownie stuck in her bedroom after school, left alone to imagine herself leading greater lives. Ms. Radner's performance was immortalized in the Mike Nichols film Gilda in 1980. And in a quieter way, this Rose is not unlike Ms. Radner's radiant, idealized queen of France
So it's been 26 years. But apparently, Rose never stopped living it, not for one moment, in this G-rated story. These are the invisible elements of Ms. Tibbetts' acting: If "Blanche Dubois" were funny! Or maybe this is how Blanche used to be, or Baby Jane Hudson, before it became Too Late!
Or maybe this Rose is the spiritual goddaughter of TV's man-children Andy Kaufman and Pee-wee Herman: in this case a girl, but trapped in the same past-due, self-admiring mock innocence as if she were staring up into a stained glass window–ensconced in a tween-hood she's borrowed from old movies. With the occasional silent twinge of self-realization, on a nearly bare set–but mostly, deliriously, living out Rose's storybook romance on a doomed ship. With a rich fiancé who will doom her to a loveless life of status and luxury. But in the meantime she's sneaking around with an adorable artist (represented by a large photo of the young Leonardo DiCaprio) who'd set her free. Though he would doom her to a life of penury.
So she's doomed either way in that torrid Hollywood style: in this case, racing through the wispy outlines of the story and through the waters below deck and into the flooded passageways. And then stepping over some water-soaked Picasso or other in a life-or-death race for I can't remember what. Keys, I think. I'm sure it would help if I'd seen the movie. But I'd much rather watch this terrific speed-through.
The movie is the perfect ironic girl-fantasy, except that it's three hours long. And Ms. Tibbetts can do it all in less than one. And file her, in her haste, under Charles Ludlum's "theater of the ridiculous," with more than the occasional moment of feeling pierced by the rapturous joy of it all. I shouldn't joke, of course. It could be something serious, like an early-onset case of Norma Desmond, just waiting to be diagnosed.
This Rose Dawson has one long-suffering enabler with her, in the person of a "stage manager." He seems like the quintessential very dry gay friend, putting up with this whole embarrassing delusion of her life, one last time. And he goes about, relentlessly setting and striking props and artwork and costumes for her, and a bright blue wig. Though he's highly dutiful, he's also the physicalization of a weary listening-partner. He's played (more or less silently) by co-author Bonfiglio with increasing pace, and all the while maintaining the iciest, Everestian level of dudgeon, propping up this mad, comic, Paul Reubens-esque fantasy for the sake of a perfect romantic conundrum.
Mainly, it's about the marvelous Ms. Tibbetts and her seemingly heartfelt fantasies: all with the intent of making a crazy art installation out of the way women (and sometimes even men) fall madly in love with love.
Never Let Go runs through December 16, 2023, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.eratheatre.org.