A Tune for the Misbegotten


Sandra Bernhard—faultlessly dressed in short-short blouse, tight-tight jeans, and knife-sharp stiletto boots—makes her claim as the hardest-working woman in showbiz. “I do whatever I have to,” she drawls, “to keep myself in fine fashions, beautiful women, handsome men, European moments, espionage.” Poor little bitch girl.

But don’t start crying for Miss B. just yet. As her cabaret show Songs I Sang on the Kibbutz insists, Bernhard seems to be keeping herself in the manner to which she’s become accustomed—and having a fine time at it. Beneath the minimalist chandeliers of Joe’s Pub, she croons an unusual program of songs—running the gamut from AC/DC screech to Janis Joplin wail, from Tom Waits to Marianne Faithfull. She’s backed by her “United Colors of Benetton” band, a multiculti blend of guitar, bass, piano, drums, and backup singer.

The female bandmates attire themselves just like Bernhard, only less so (i.e., longer, looser, blunter). A coincidence, perhaps, but Bernhard certainly has couture on the brain. Between songs she regales her devoted crowd with anecdotes from fashion award shows and headlines gleaned from Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar. Few performers could give such a menacing undertone to “Eight Flirty Hairstyles That Must Be Obeyed.” Then, in an abrupt change of pace, she sings a ditty entitled “Don’t Let Fashion Rule You.” Sure—as soon as you tell us where you got those fabulous boots.

And maybe Bernhard should let fashion rule her. After all, she’s fun, fearless, and female, big-lipped and long-legged, a perfect Cosmo girl for the ’00s—assuming the Cosmo editorial offices were overrun by some dead-glamorous anarchist syndicate. She’s a looker, yes, but she’s whip-smart too. Bernhard synthesizes off-color jokes, celeb gossip, radical opinions, and questionable sensibilities into one fierce package. She can discuss Arab-Israeli peace negotiations one moment, lay into Asian phone sex ads the next, then imitate Angelina Jolie’s bipolar pillow talk.

A dynamic monologuist, it’s often a shame when she interrupts her latest riff with a song. Bernhard sings well, sometimes better than well, but her vocal gymnastics rarely attain the heights of her verbal ones. And while her cover choices often charm in their eclecticism, some continuity would not be taken amiss. But Bernhard does prove a delightful companion for an evening’s entertainment. She begs the audience to relax and enjoy. As she looks at the Public Theater photographs on the walls of the pub, she instructs, “Don’t get serious, don’t get heavy. Enough tragedy comes out of this place as it is.”

While the current show coming out of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe isn’t quite a tragedy, Gethsemane Park—a “Gospera” with music by Carman Moore, libretto by Ishmael Reed, and direction by Rome Neal—is plagued by unfulfilled potential. A passion play without a Christ, Gethsemane lacks a clear center.

Against a painted backdrop of trees, graffiti, and crack-smoking Satan, the denizens of an inner-city park debate matters of faith and redemption, awaiting a Jesus who never arrives. Like a dour Godspell, a chorus of street kids in cast-off clothes replay the gospel highlights in a variety of musical genres.

But faith and love don’t fare so well against poverty and affliction. In Gethsemane Park, Mary Magdalene and Judas struggle against addiction, a drive-by shooting cripples Martha, even Lazarus’s resurrection occasions little rejoicing. As Lazarus, Charles Thomas growls, “I live among the dead and the undead/One part bliss, the other dread.” This pessimistic tone proves compelling, but the play’s creators fail to carry it through—tacking on an unsatisfying happy ending in which Judas rejects Satan, Martha walks again, and Lazarus joins the dance.

Neal directs the play in a straightforward, presentational fashion, though with little attention to the choreography. And he’s cast singers with such disparate styles (opera, gospel, hip-hop) that some of the group numbers border on cacophony. Performed on synthesizers, Moore’s music never comes fully alive. Maybe Sandra Bernhard could give up the musical portion of her act and lend her band to the Nuyoricans.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 18, 2000

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