Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: 'Marlene and the Machine'

Bearded Ladies' brilliant cabaret pushes the boundaries of emotional chaos and rational control.

Review: 'Marlene and the Machine'

Kristen Bailey and John Jarboe in ´Marlene and the Machine´
Kristen Bailey and John Jarboe in 'Marlene and the Machine'

By Jim Rutter


Each day, Internet users upload nearly half a billion photos to Facebook, another 60-plus hours of video per minute to YouTube, and post several hundred million messages on Twitter. 

I thought of this penchant for compulsive oversharing while watching the Bearded  Ladies' intense, illuminating Marlene and the Machine, a cabaret that probes the boundaries between the chaos of uncontrolled emotion and the veneer of manufactured control.

And who better to explore these themes than that icon of carefully constructed character, Marlene Dietrich (John Jarboe)? Together with performers Liz Filios, Kate Raines and Kristen Bailey, Jarboe presents a seminar on “Affect Management,” a 90-minute tutorial on manipulating others by mastering your own emotions.

As Filios and Raines enact grotesque choreography and exaggerated pantomime, the quartet weaves in songs Dietrich turned famous (from Friedrich Hollaender), and more contemporary selections about isolation, narcissism and manipulation by Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple, not to mention a mocking rendition of lyrics penned by Fred Rogers (yes, Mr. Rogers).

Jarboe’s lanky frame totters on platform heels, lunging into the audience, frightening and entrancing with a dangerous charisma. Rebecca Kanach dressed the cast in tattered gauze dresses, fraying lederhosen and vinyl head wraps that blur the lines of gender. Bailey’s stunning turn startles with a fascinating androgyny.

The group’s German expressionist approach (think Fritz Lang) and comic theatricality lends distance from the darker themes, though Jarboe’s teasing indicates the true targets. While machines can control their responses, “it’s hard being human” he laments, dealing constantly with emotions, “the magic tricks of the body.” Lighthearted touches (and forced audience involvement) extract probing questions from the lyrics—“If we didn’t have faces, would we still want to live?”—that touch on our daily interface with machines.

By the time you’re reading this review, I will have already Facebooked, tweeted and tumblred this piece, expressing faceless thoughts to unknown recipients. And as I type, I’m haunted by the show’s final image: Jarboe’s hand, outstretched in an unrelenting yearning to reach, to grasp, to connect.


Marlene and the Machine. Runs until December 15 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $20 to $25. Information: 215-546-7824 or 

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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