It’s important to distinguish when you are criticizing theater, far more so than when you critique a movie or a statue or a recording, all things that a person can then experience for themselves and contextualize. It seems to me that theater criticism today is largely about how a person feels when they are watching a show, “I liked it, it made me laugh, this was funny, this was riveting” that kind of thing. There is very little discussion of what people are doing, the ways in which one is acting or has been directed to act, and those are the things that theater seeks to celebrate.

I want to hold myself to that standard, while also telling people how it felt to be in the theater, since it seems that’s what people want the most.

Last night we went to see “Making Marilyn”, produced by The Bridge Theater Company. When the house opens, you have to wander through the performance space to get to your seats, with the actors already in their spots, already muttering to themselves, in sort of a dreamscape of images which is a perfect introduction to the evening, as is the opening song which crescendoes into a sort of madness, a young boy stumbling around playing a non-amplified guitar and singing to himself a song he can barely sing because of his nervous tics and, well, madness.

The play exists largely in the memory of this one character. It turns out his mother is an alcoholic whore. Also, he ends up having a rather lengthy sexual and romantic relationship with Marilyn Monroe who is also an alcoholic whore. But both of these facts are *literal*, it is a conceit of the play that this fifteen year old boy from Canada had a long passionate relationship with Monroe, to the point where we are led to believe she called him and was the last person she spoke to before she died.

There is a common artistic thread between the writing and the acting of the young boy, one of a lack of discipline. It isn’t just that we don’t need another play with Marilyn Monroe in it, that might be true but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that if you’re gonna have the actual Marilyn Monroe in the play, then you need to write a series of events that meshes with what we know of her, what we know of the world of the 40s and 50s, and what we know about celebrity worship. The sloppiness with which the subject matter is handled is matched perfectly by the unfocused and erratic performances of some of the cast.

Ashlie Atkinson plays Marilyn and the boy’s mother in this show. Full disclosure, she auditioned for a show we did and she also worked on the A-Train plays with us when we did them, and I was completely charmed by her in person and with the wonderful spirit she brings to everything she’s involved in. So, y’know, know that before I say anything… but her performance in this show is incredible. It’s specific, it’s smart, it’s disciplined and it is infectious. Whenever she wasn’t on stage, I couldn’t wait for her to get back.

Her Marilyn is exactly the kind of performance I love. She doesn’t act like Marilyn from the movies, she does a shaken down, distilled version, but with all the memorable sexuality. She plays every single second with a million tiny ideas in her mind, she rolls out some bizarre dialogue with perfect ease, with genuine understanding and subtext, and not an ounce of wasted energy.

Above all else, her performance is brave, and that’s not the kind of thing I normally give actors credit for. Ashlie is not your average beautiful actress, she made her name playing the title character in “Fat Pig”, and now she is taking on the gold standard of hollywood glamour and sexuality, and she does it without apology. Marilyn, in her, is not a wig and a familiar dress, she is literally Marilyn right down to her skin, and she shows you every inch. It is a startling and wonderful performance.

The director has the final credit and final blame for the things that were good and the things that were bad. The performances of the better actors were smart and articulate, but there was no sense that these people were all in the same play. The set design, which is also hers, was imaginative and evocative, see through dark and light screens that were evocative and scary, and I give her full props for that, but the play’s lack of focus and periods of spastic uncontrolled acting are her fault as well.

It’s very possible that one might enjoy this play much more than I did, transported by Ashlie’s performance and entranced in a certain amount of boozy parent hating. But when you start down that road, you’re asking to be compared to a hundred plays (the complete works of Tennessee Williams come to mind) that have already dealt with it. And if Marilyn is a main character, you’re asking for that comparison as well. It’s a trap that the playwright doesn’t navigate at all.