The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Friday, June 17, 2011

At the Venue on 35th....

“I Just Wanna Be Your Barbie Doll”
Denise Stewart Tells All

Before last night, here’s all I knew about Barbie dolls: A lot of girls had them when they were growing up, and there’s some sort of fetish surrounding them that always seemed a little weird to me, the way little girls in short skirts and net stockings performing adult show tunes is a little weird.

In fact, I don’t think I ever knew a girl well—not my sisters, not my girl friends, not the girl I married—who played with Barbie dolls.

Until now. In a little more than an hour, in fact, I got to know someone pretty well who knows a whole lot more about Barbie dolls than I ever considered before.

I know her because she told me and about twenty others many of the intimate details of her life from stormy childhood to post-graduate orphan, and she not only played with Barbie dolls. She lived a vicarious life through them.

These revelations transpired at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk last night, June 16, when Denise Stewart, a Charlottesville playwright and actor, opened her one-woman theatrical blog, Dirty Barbie and other girlhood tales, for a four-performance weekend run. The production is the second in the Norfolk Summer Play Fest of new works.

Stewart is a focused, energetic performer with a lot of stamina and little inhibition. She is also generously endowed. (She’ll tell you that, even if I hadn’t. It’s important to her story.)

These qualities attract attention and hold it through her performance of selected, comi-tragic episodes from a tumultuous but, I suspect, not uncommon, dysfunctional, and thoroughly contemporary family life.

Stewart makes no secret that it’s her own dysfunctional family life. This show is straight autobiography whose episodes, like blog entries, have titles which are projected on a stage-right screen. Beginning with the show’s opener, “Dirty Barbie,” we learn right from the top that Barbie is all about little girls’ fantasies of getting laid, preferably by a guy like Ken, Barbie’s male clone.

But Stewart’s story, on the other hand, is about what happens to real girls after they get laid, and, unlike Barbie’s perfect life, it’s not very pretty.

Stewart’s father, we learn in an episode entitled “What Church Do You Belong To?,” is an alcoholic ex-Marine who beats her, her three siblings, and her mother. After he dies of cancer, he’s not much missed. But her mother is also an alcoholic who lets the neighbors in Moorsville, NC, look after her, as told in the episode “How Southern Women Saved My Life.” Their home is a battleground of constant bickering and fighting. The kids essentially raise themselves in a pop-culture environment of television, junk food, top-40 hits, high school football, and smart-ass acting-out.

It’s got to be some sort of tribute to her grit that Stewart not only survived that scene but emerged as the disciplined creative force that she is. But I’d hazard a guess that acting out her story serves her emotional and psychological health to no small degree.

The question is, do we care?

At first, I didn’t. The whole Barbie thing was alien to me. But that didn’t seem to be the case with the women in the audience, young as well as older, who chuckled and giggled with familiarity all the way through. The fantasy of Barbie—”a two-point-five billion-dollar industry,” Stewart exclaims—seems to embody a feminine mystery, some sort of rite of passage peculiar to women which men may not even want to understand.

What man wants to face the fact that he’s not Ken?

In any case, I warmed to Stewart’s story as it went on and she stopped reminding me so much of my own younger sister who also lived in a fantasy world I couldn’t understand but thoroughly scorned. (She was nuts over late-’50s pop stars like Ricky Nelson and Fabian.) It soon became apparent that Stewart is inviting us, her audience, not just to witness but to relive with her select scenes from her chaotic early life. From raging pre-pubescent brat to cool college workaholic to her final defiant dance, swiping two Barbie dolls through her crotch like a disco queen twirling a pair of tawses, Stewart entices us to share in what it was like to grow up as her—on the bet, largely successful, that we’ll recognize ourselves.

Or at least the women will.

There’s some great wit in the piece. For instance, when her college roommates take off for Key West over spring break, looking for sex while she stays home alone and masturbates, she says, “They can have all the sex and I can have all the orgasms.”

Or, explaining why she never got caught drinking as a teenager, despite her consistent abuse of alcohol, she says, “I was a good liar with good grades.”

This self-deprecating view of herself and her life, making dark comedy out of suicidal loneliness, saves the script from sinking into a confessional morass. The scenes, in fact, are well-paced and move smoothly from one mood to another with enough variety to keep us watching. There are conclusions drawn, as well, offered as truths gained from hard experience.

Perhaps the core truth Stewart wants us to know—and I paraphrase— is this: If you do the hard work and share it, people will know you better, and maybe that’s all you can hope for.

Stewart has done the hard work. We applaud her skill in turning intensely personal experience into a disciplined public performance. And we do know her better. Denise Stewart is Dirty Barbie, another way of saying Every Girl.

The Venue’s production is the third for Dirty Barbie. It premiered at the Lee Street Theater in Salisbury, NC, in March. In April it played at the Earl Hamner Theater in Afton, near Charlottesville. And, according to Stewart, it follows the form in which it originated, as stories from her childhood which she first wrote for her online blog, Dee Dee’s Living Will.

Dirty Barbie and other girlhood tales continues at The Venue, 631 W. 35th St., tonight and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Make your reservations at 757-469-0337.

Meanwhile, the Norfolk Summer Play Fest’s third production, Wanderlust, by Brad McMurran and Jeremiah Albers, opens at 8 tonight, June 17, for two weekends at the Generic Theater down under Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. For details, click here. Then check back on this page tomorrow for a review.

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