Translated by Gitta Honegger
Directed by Tea Alagic
Starring Tina Benko
Reviewed by David Roberts, Theatre Reviews Limited
Men (the male of the species, not the generic ‘humankind’) are often (always?) quite a burden to carry when they are among the living. Post mortem, these same men are often (in perpetuity?) even more of a burden to carry – for the living who remember them and for the dead who must share either Paradisio or Inferno with them. The burden of Jack, Bobby, and Ari – their weight, their load – was difficult for Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy Onassis while they all shared the mortal frame. That load remained heavy after all shared their disparate journeys through the morgue. The Women’s Project Theater production of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Jackie,” currently playing at New York City Center Stage II, is the story of the burden placed upon the former First Lady by these men (and some women) and the burden she accepted from them – willingly and otherwise.
Dragging the corpses of Jack, Bobby, Ari, and other smaller dead ones behind her and depositing them downstage left, Jackie (Tina Benko) in her non-corporeal state reveals sides of her rarely visited by her living and not-so-living admirers and detractors. Ms. Benko embodies the spirit of Jackie so completely the audience, sitting spellbound, often wonders whether it might just be watching a hologram of Ms. Kennedy-Onassis that she created to be observed sometime after her death. The actor’s performance is so convincing that the confines of space and time dissolve and the audience enters Jackie’s world of fame, fashion, fear, flight, and fantasy.
Even in death and life beyond death, Jackie cannot simply “brush off” the burden of her public and private life with Jack Kennedy and all that his life and his untimely death demanded of her. Ms. Jelinek’s extended prose poem as translated by Gitta Honegger demands performance as spoken word and Ms. Benko delivers that poetic powerhouse with passion and heartfelt compassion for the woman whose story she portrays in eighty minutes of electrifying and sometimes brilliantly disturbing drama. The audience will rarely again hear a more visual play.
In some deep place beneath the layers of the fame the public demanded of Jackie, the fashion icon she became for them, the fear she experienced in the role of First Lady, the flight she sought from the pain of Jack’s infidelity with Marilyn (and others), and the fantasy world of the Kennedy family – in some deep place beneath all that load there is a reality called ‘Jackie’ that Ms. Jelinek’s play seeks to resurrect. Jackie says, “I locked everything up in my clothes, myself included. I am and I am not. I am also a sort of vampire. I am dead, but I won’t die.”
Jackie’s story counterpoints with Marilyn’s story as told by Jackie. “[Marilyn] is decay, for she is flesh. And even though this flesh consists of light – decay she must.” Like Gertrude, Jackie doth protest too much about Marilyn it seems. She has neither put Marilyn behind her nor forgotten what Marilyn did in life and apparently continues to do in death. Jelinek’s script abounds with stories of Marilyn, stories of Jack’s death, stories of miscarriages, and drugs, and pain, and image. What makes “Jackie” so compelling is its image of Jackie Kennedy as somehow an unfinished, not completely renovated human being. Unlike the public image of the woman in control, the audience here sees a Jackie not of boldness, not a Lady of Miracles, but a flesh and blood woman who has come to terms with her profound understanding that there is “no blessed virgin here to help.” Indeed, Jackie admits, “There is something that doesn’t go away and I don’t know what it is. Somehow it irritates me like a splinter under the skin, under my striped beach sweater. But once again, it doesn’t do any good. It really hurts to express an emotion for everyone to see it. Believe me.”
The audience sees that hurt in Tina Benko’s gripping performance – a hurt that never seems to go away in life, or in death, or in life beyond death. Jackie’s hurt becomes universal, as universal as her story, as universal as death itself. At the end of the play, Jackie wraps herself in a bit of the same duct tape which wraps the dead ones on the stage. She lies down with them saying, “I wave my hand in front of my face: Hello, anybody home? But I only look at myself. Why shouldn’t I look at myself? That’s what everyone else does. No. No one home. Not even my hair. Heavens, will you look at that! Not even my hair is home. Completely uninhabitable! Once again I am in the middle of renovating. I already picked the drapes. They are so great, no one will ask about my hair. Yes, that’s how we do it. No question.”
And there is no question that seeing “Jackie” will change not only one’s understanding of who Jackie Kennedy was (and is) but also one’s understanding of life itself.