Performing Arts

This ‘Marilyn’ holds a mirror to its subject in a Fishtank production

At a time when the technological glitz of superhero movies dominates the entertainment landscape, how can a mere play compete for the attention of an audience? Quite well, in fact. Because live theater can do things that a film cannot.

A play can offer the high-wire act of live performance. A play, rather than shouting at us with spectacle, can entice us with a whisper. That’s doubly true when the show is staged in a small space like “Marilyn/God” at the Fishtank Performance Studio.

Directed by Jeff Church, starring Heidi Van as America’s ultimate sex symbol, the story is a brooding little oddity: a one-act psychological melodrama with dashes of dark comedy that histrionically, but ably, explores the destructive nature of fame.

We open, cheerfully enough, with Marilyn Monroe’s death. Guided by disembodied voices and text messages above her, the actress must audition her way into heaven. It’s a satisfying conceit, terribly apt for a culture obsessed with celebrity.

It’s also a sturdy premise for allowing Marilyn to explore herself. She does so over a dark, hourlong journey, confronting her dying mother, an ex-agent, old lovers, the conflicting demands of femininity, and her own capitulation to the star maker machinery. This show makes Marilyn hold a mirror to herself, forcing her to face the ugly truth of what she lost and what she willingly gave away.

The mirror, by the way, is literal. The stark set, designed by Mark Exline, resembles the interior of a morgue, with porcelain slab for bodies. Above it hangs a giant mirror, making manifest the play’s twin themes of death and vanity.

The lighting by Jamie Leonard serves double duty. Leonard’s design plays beautifully on Van’s features, at times transforming her into Marilyn-as-dazzling-goddess, at times making the star look haggard, alone and afraid. Also, with Van being alone onstage for the whole performance, the light must act as a surrogate for unseen characters, be they angels or paparazzi. It’s no mean feat.

This show, however, rests on Van’s bare shoulders. It succeeds because of her fearlessness. .

Costumed in little more than a white slip and lingerie, she writhes, rolls, paces and preens around the tiny stage, mere feet from the audience. It’s both attractive and disturbing. The play, after all, deals with the destructive power of the sexual gaze. It’s unsettling to watch a story that explores the ruinous nature of sexual objectification while sitting in a crowd that’s ogling a hot, half-dressed woman. That, one suspects, is the point.

The play is far from perfect. The dialogue occasionally meanders and becomes bathetic. The dollops of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson feel like literary name-dropping. Mostly, though, the show works admirably.

“Marilyn/God” is a compact, thought-provoking drama. Nicely staged and well-acted, the show looks at the star and her discontents with an intimacy and immediacy that only live theater in a small space can provide.

Onstage

“Marilyn/God” is at the Fishtank Performance Studio in the Crossroads Arts District, 1715 Wyandotte St. Performances begin at 8 p.m. The show runs through April 24, but may be extended. Go to the Fishtank website for more details. Tickets are $20, available at www.artful.ly/store/events/8326.

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