Theater archives

Jackie: First Lady Problems


She clambers up through a trap door, emerging onstage with a collection of tatty faceless dummies in tow. They’re swathed in duct tape, and names are stenciled on their chests: One is John (her first husband), another Bobby (his brother), and a third is Ari (Aristotle Onassis, her second spouse). Picturing that family tree? That’s right, this is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, famous First Lady and style icon—as re-imagined by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek. Jackie, Jelinek’s one-woman drama about this legendary figure, is now playing for the first time in the U.S., in a Women’s Project production starring Tina Benko and directed by Tea Alagic.

We seem to have joined America’s Sweetheart in the afterlife, an eerie netherworld that resembles the deep end of a long-abandoned swimming pool. Scattered leaves and pine needles are strewn over its dirt-smeared tiles, and a rusty-looking ladder leads over the pool’s edge. (Marsha Ginsberg designed the beautifully detailed set.) Garbed in a classic trench, Jackie paces around this odd amphitheater, ruminating on times gone by. Jelinek’s text is dense with imagery and wordplay, and it swoops and swerves through the First Lady’s troubled past, alighting repeatedly on a few themes: JFK’s notorious infidelities, the assassination in all its gory detail. Jackie obsesses over her famous glamour-girl rivalry with Marilyn Monroe—and each time she does, legions of Barbie dolls pop up through the pool’s trap door, or tumble in through its air vents, taunting her with their blonde locks and outlandish proportions. (Yes, there is some Barbie carnage.)

By the end—despite Benko’s precise, poetic performance—it’s not entirely clear what we’ve learned about this American idol. Jackie is one-third of a dramatic trilogy called Princess Plays (the other two riff on the tales of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty), and this play might well have been more intriguing in combination with the others: It’s Jelinek, not Jackie, who’s new for American audiences, and the trio would have emphasized the unfamiliar playwright over the all-too-familiar beauty queen.