Who the heck is Meow Meow? Described in her bio as a “post-post-modern diva,” she’s a mystery wrapped in a slinky outfit. “Some say I was born in Moscow, others say Macau,” she tells us in An Audience with Meow Meow, but she prefers to think she emerged “fully formed from a bottle of absinthe.” It’s a gag she’ll return to again and again over the course of the show. And yes, the title itself is a pun. We’re an audience. She’s Meow Meow. You see how it is.
In fact Meow Meow is the alter ego of Australian cabaret performer Melissa Madden Gray, but that scarcely matters. She’s a fully formed persona besotted with her own fabulosity -- so much so that she’s aghast when the masses don’t throw flowers after her opening number and sets out to rectify that. “It’s not easy to be a showgirl of gargantuan proportions,” she says a couple of times.
Everything about the setup exudes glitz and glamour: the glittery dark curtain with a big red M on it, Meow Meow’s big entrance suspended in front of a huge sign of her name in lights; her suave and tuxedo-clad but much-abused backup dancers (Michael Balderrama and Bob Gaynor). But it all starts falling apart pretty quickly, and so does Meow Meow, and the rest of the evening becomes all about her trying to hold it together as everything she’s come to rely on onstage is stripped away.
Berkeley Rep describes An Audience with Meow Meow as “a new musical play,” which somewhat explains the involvement of adaptor/director Emma Rice of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre. While this is Ms. Meow’s first time at the Rep, Rice has wowed local audiences with her theatrical fantasias The Wild Bride and Tristan & Yseult at Berkeley Rep and Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater.
This dramatic conceit is a transparent attempt to give some shape to the evening of tragicomedy cabaret, but at times it has the opposite effect. The arc involves a lot of things happening at the beginning and then a long trailing-off period, making the show seem like it’s winding down long before it actually ends, which in turn makes its 90 minutes feel longer than it actually is.
Despite the sections that come off as killing time and the recurring punchlines that don’t gain anything in repetition, Meow Meow carries us with her through the slow patches by sheer force of personality, which she has to spare. She demands love from the audience that it would seem churlish not to give. “They don’t call me the Mother Courage of performance art for nothing,” she says at least twice.
It helps that as a cabaret show it’s often delightful, with some truly hilarious audience interactions (she’s as hard on her “volunteers” as she is on her dancers), amusingly awkward costume changes from one fabulous getup to another. (Neil Murray designed both the set and the costumes.) Along the way she delivers compelling and often hysterical renditions of songs from Jacques Brel to Bertolt Brecht, from Patti Griffin to Radiohead, accompanied by a sharp onstage quartet led by pianist/arranger Lance Horne. Her manic deconstruction of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” is a showstopper in itself, long before the show actually stops. When the end does eventually come, it’s with a satisfyingly big finish -- and then, as usual, just a little more after that.
An Audience with Meow Meow runs through October 19, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.