Meow Meow milks the audience for applause so often it feels as if we are seated on stools in a dairy barn.
An Audience with Meow Meow, created by and starring Meow Meow. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Presented by Arts Emerson, Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston, through October 24.
By Robert Israel
Meow Meow, née Melissa Madden Gray, is a lanky, long-legged performance artist from Australia. Surely you’ve noticed her astonished gaze and disheveled mane of dark, unruly tresses leering at you from subway posters and billboards all over town. And since she’s been quite adept at milking the publicity cow to extend her 15 minutes of fame, undoubtedly you’ve seen her batting her long false eyelashes and flashing her pearly whites in cameos in the gossip columns and on television.
Meow Meow’s branding skills are formidable. But her show at the Cutler Majestic, replete with onstage musicians, stagehands, a body double, and all that pizzazz, is a mess. She’s a heavy-duty, wink-wink cheeky performer with a marvelous singing voice. She struts her stuff like a freaky chorus girl on amphetamines. An ounce of her manic energy could fuel a fleet of Uber taxis. There are flashes of brilliance, but she fails to assert the necessary discipline to shape the show-biz chaos in ways that would sustain our attention. Her director, Leigh Silverman, tries to rein Meow Meow in, but fails. She is too feisty, too jittery. She wriggles like a glowworm. She cannot commit long enough to singing a song to bother to finish it; she continually shifts her attention to audience members that she plucks from the front rows for onstage mischief and mayhem.
The premise of the show is “an audience with Meow Meow,” meaning that theatergoers are co-conspirators to her hammy antics. But what’s missing from her Mulligan’s stew is a unifying sensibility that would bring the show’s flavors together, an order that would rest on her interpretive gifts as a musical performer. Meow Meow’s biography credits her with doing just that at many international venues; she’s garnered praise for interpreting the tunes of Brecht/Weill and others. But in this show, Meow Meow’s dependence on shticks—pratfalls, the slow unenticing removal of layers of undergarments that adhere to her limbs like spider’s webbing, and streams of unintelligible babble meant to underscore her flibbertigibbet persona–elbows her skills as a songstress aside. She milks the audience for applause so often it feels as if we are seated on stools in a dairy barn. This consistent craving for the audience’s adoration–which goes on over a dozen times–becomes annoying.
Two of her song selections, Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” illustrate the lost artistic opportunities. During the Brel rendition, she accosts four men from the audience to join her onstage to form a ménage à trois while she simultaneously attempts to put the song’s romantic lyrics across. Setting up the ruse of a human throne—petting an audience member’s bald dome as her choice supplicant, positioning another to form the seat and arms that she sits upon—takes up far too much time and energy. Eventually, the gag runs out of steam, a souffle that is esoufflé. The performance collapses in order to generate a few laughs.
The same thing happens to the Cohen song. Meow introduces the piece by identifying that it’s “from the Great American Songbook, written by a Canadian.” The musicians launch into it, slow and sexy. She croons with her on-target throaty/smoky voice. But then she hurries through the verses so she can quickly return to the antics, the frantic fray. Were we supposed to pay attention to the song? Or is it just a straight man for a punch line?
The most dazzling moment of the show comes when Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Meow Meow’s body double, joins her in a pas de deux onstage. It’s marvelously choreographed by Sonya Tayeh and one of the few times when Meow Meow, perpetually basking in the glow of self-adoration, is forced to focus on the talents of another performer. Alas, like the song selections truncated for the sake of questionable onstage antics, this moment ends abruptly. If only there had been an extended session of this clever mirror-image interaction—we would have been treated to another sample of Meow Meow’s impressive gifts.
Meow Meow walks (and tumbles off of) the tightrope between pandering for audience affection and commanding the stage by showcasing her considerable musical talents. Because she chooses antics over substance, there are too many flashes in her pan—in the end, the audience leaves with nothing but glitter in its eyes.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.