Los Angeles Theater Review: Sandra Bernhard: SANDROLOGY (REDCAT)

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by Jason Rohrer on June 1, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Imagine yourself not exactly as JFK cheerleader Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but at least a 40ish New Deal Democrat, attending a John F. Kennedy rally in New York City in the summer of 1963.  You’re sympathetic to the president and his ideas, but you’re not one of the fresh-from-college, budding-hippie, personality-cult types swaying and chanting around you.  It’s a little frightening to be in this crowd.  You fear that if you stick around, you may find yourself spontaneously joining the Peace Corps.  But caught up in the giddiness, you wait in the throng for the star’s arrival.

[You are me last Wednesday, a straight liberal in a REDCAT theater packed with queers, waiting for Sandra Bernhard to appear in her latest show Sandrology.  Okay, you got me: how straight can a theater critic really claim to be?  Suffer the analogy or don’t.  I can handle it.  I have my people, too.]

Kennedy walks out onto the platform.  The howling brush-cut fanatics ask not what they can do for their country: they scream approval.  JFK comes to the podium and shoots himself.  And while the college kids roar like they’re hearing the new Gettysburg Address, you ask yourself, what’s happened to America?

Jason Rohrer's Los Angeles review of Sandrology at REDCATAnd so I sat opening night at REDCAT, failing to become enamored of what I had hoped would be a great performance.  Essentially, I watched an occasionally flop-sweaty Ms. Bernhard try out (before a paying audience) half-written material she had to read from a music stand because, so far from having memorized it, she hadn’t even familiarized herself with it.  Her riffs, the staple for which she became famous thirty years ago, were mostly lame and without point.

The first few minutes she devoted to an analysis of her cocktail dress (which late in the show she shucked to perform a medley in her underwear).  She mentioned that the dress had capacious pockets.  She could, therefore, have brought something in them.  Like a show.

Jason Rohrer's Los Angeles review of Sandrology at REDCATShe complained that her host venue had asked to be reassured that she would be performing new material this time, and most of the evening seemed designed as a punishment to Los Angeles for having had the temerity to ask so much.  But the meaninglessness of it all seemed lost on the bulk of the crowd, which ate up this crumb of an act as if it were crème brulée.   A measure of the distance between my perspective and that of the people who had Come to See Her Be Great on Any Terms: of the 200-plus attendees I could see, who had not already left before the final number, the only four who did not join the standing ovation were the parties from the Los Angeles Times and from Stage and Cinema.

Jason Rohrer's Los Angeles review of Sandrology at REDCATOnce upon a time, La Bernhard was a sharp social observer, pointed in her attacks on stuffed shirts and cultural magi.  She marked the logical extension of one particular thread in the 70’s and 80’s performance-art tapestry, funnier than Laurie Anderson (not difficult), not as self-destructive as GG Allin (who is?), and without as many characters as Eric Bogosian.  Ms. Bernhard works with one character, herself, which on her best nights is more than enough.  Her act, when good, seems not an act at all but an effortless stream-of-consciousness diatribe against pomposity, skewering celebrity culture and the mean-spirited famous; and when good, it’s also funny.

Jason Rohrer's Los Angeles review of Sandrology at REDCATIn this incarnation, she grabs at low-hanging fruit like reality television nonentities and only comes up with a handful of leaves.  She talks about her life as a mom, sans insight or comedic purpose.  (She mentions her daughter’s iPhone, which – guess what?  Broke!  Yes, and she had to buy another!  Isn’t that?  Just?)  Eventually she reduces herself to prop-comic status, lugging a pile of celebrity-endorsed tchotchkes from the piano to the music stand and back without a clever bit in the bunch.  After this bomb, her excuse:  “You wanted a new show, I made you a new fucking show.”

Jason Rohrer's Los Angeles review of Sandrology at REDCATHer band is very good, though I can’t name them because the non-existent program didn’t bother to include their names.  As opposed to the other half of the act, her songs show a lot of rehearsal.  She clearly has a musical director (again, I can’t give you a name), but why?  She still can’t sing.  Or rather, she can sing, but she still can’t hit some of the notes.  That used to be one of the darling hallmarks of her act, the highwire-walk between camp and cool, so hip to herself as to seem totally unselfconscious.  She used to know she couldn’t quite sing, but the pure desire to be a chanteuse trumped her fears and made her inabilities irrelevant.  Her will to sing made listening to her not quite hit the note an act of faith that brought the audience into her church.  Now, she’s trying so hard, and coming so close, that it’s actually embarrassing to hear her fail with such confidence.

As for the infidel in the crowd, I wandered out and up the hill past Disney Hall accompanied by a gay friend made so out of sorts by this disappointing evening that we didn’t even joke about sucking each other’s cocks in the parking lot.  My gay-eligible card’s gonna lapse if Sandra Bernhard doesn’t get her shit together.

show photos by Steven Gunther; poster by William Baker

Sandra Bernhard: Sandrology
Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater at REDCAT in Los Angeles
scheduled to end on June 10, 2012
for tickets, call 213 237-2800 or visit http://www.redcat.org


JG June 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

In fact, maybe one of the best show reviews I’ve ever read.

Joey Corrigan June 7, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Los Angeles will go to the opening of an envelope and leap to their feet at the end of anything. A result of the “my child is a genius at (fill in the blank) elementary school” school of mutual admiration, I think.

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