There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are, says Lady Gaga in Born This Way.
It’s a message the creators behind Of a Monstrous Child might have taken to heart before slapping a misleading subtitle on their show. This unusual play is many things, but a Gaga musical it is not.
Sure, there are excerpts of the Bad Romance singer’s hits in director/writer Alistair Newton’s new “dance-floor dialectic” about her, but they are short enough that they stay within copyright laws – which is to say, frustratingly short, like an iTunes track preview.
Put musical-theatre preconceptions aside, however, and you may be satisfied. Of a Monstrous Child is full of all sorts of snippets, a kind of theatricalized Tumblr of competing theories about the pop star. It includes snatches of essays by dissident feminist Camille Paglia, bits of an interview with envious, incarcerated Club Kid Michael Alig and soundbites from the likes of Cher, Madonna, Grace Jones and Elton John on the subject of Her Gaganess.
In addition, there are longer recreations of performances by Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic, musical sequences such as a curious rendition of Radiohead’s Creep by Alig and more male nudity than you can shake a disco stick at. In the middle of it all is a playlet written by Ride the Cyclone’s Jacob Richmond that pops up like you’ve accidentally clicked on the wrong link and ended up watching the latest funny viral video.
Indeed, the Internet and how it’s changing the fame game is a recurrent theme in Of a Monstrous Child; it also influences the form of the show.
Leigh Bowery, a deceased Australian performance artist played here with ghoulish gusto by Stratford Festival star Bruce Dow, narrates, beginning by projecting his Wikipedia page onto the back curtain. He then launches into a lecture on Lady Gaga’s pop and performance predecessors given to The Little Monster, an androgynous fan played by the compelling Tyson James.
For a number of years now, Newton’s Ecce Homo Theatre company has been creating didactic semi-documentary theatre – Weimar cabaret meets Robert Wilson meets Wikipedia – that explores controversial religious figures (Mother Teresa and Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church) or artists (Leni Riefenstahl and Peter Flinsch). With the messianic and monstrous Lady Gaga, he’s found a subject who combines elements of both.
One of the show’s arguments is that Gaga – portrayed here by a convincing Kimberly Persona – is a self-aware arrangement of influences, the first pop star for a world of cut-and-paste.
A counterargument is presented by Paglia, played by Gavin Crawford of This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame; the acclaimed academic and Madonna fan sees Gaga as “the exhausted end of the sexual revolution,” representative of all that is reflexively recycled and relativistic about today’s culture. (Crawford is a contemptuous Paglia, but makes a stronger impression in his brilliant and brief caricatures of Bjork, Cher and Andy Warhol.)
Of a Monstrous Child – the title references an essay by Michel de Montaigne on deformity that Stefani Germanotta, a.k.a. the future Gaga, wrote about as an art-school student – has moments that drag, but is ultimately an intriguing experience on its own terms, like a heady episode of Behind the Music. Technically, it is an ambitious leap forward for an artist whose work usually inhabits low-budget festivals. It didn’t quite go off without a hitch on opening night – a wig fell off here, an actor forgot his lines there and the sound balance was off.
Nevertheless, it is fun to watch Dow, who was recently on Broadway playing Herod in Stratford’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, bare all as Bowery; Matt Jackson’s costumes are creative; and Persona can really sing when she’s allowed to let loose.
Having seen this immediately after a trip to the Shaw Festival, I couldn’t help but think Newton’s trying to reinvent a play of ideas for the 21st century – just replacing the cardboard characters with other artificialities. His style is at once entirely derivative and fresh – like Lady Gaga.