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"Looped" at Stageworks/Hudson: Ms. Tallulah Zenk Takes Us On A Transcendent Theatrical Safari

Colleen Zenk stars as Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped" -
Photo: Sue Coflin: Max Photos
In the pantheon of famous postmodern, sex-positive, third-wave feminist contrarians, many of whom are now genuine American icons, Tallulah Bankhead remains a paradigm of the art of performance, even a half-century after her passing.

Before Lady Gaga, Jane Fonda and The Superstars of Andy Warhol's Factory (in fact, before the television, film and radio industries even existed), Tallulah was a bearer of that particular cultural space treasured, even venerated, by those of us who champion the soap opera. That space where actors and their characters achieve singularity, and where the memories of the daily exposition of the story are inextricably entangled with the day-to-day drama of our own lives, both public and private.

Where does the guile and contrivance of the theater end, and the realness of, well, real life, begin? I am very grateful - delighted - that the star of LOOPED, Colleen Zenk, and Stageworks/Hudson, under the elegant and canny direction of Laura Margolis, conspire to liberate us from such boundaries as curtains and footlights, reinforcing the romantic, even Bankheadean conviction, "All the world's a stage."

This production of LOOPED is not creating a novel facsimile or ghoulish simulacrum of Tallulah; instead, it is an exhilarating evocation of her very nature. Zenk's performance achieves inspirational levels at regular intervals throughout the show (the remainder is merely captivating and/or sublime). They usually coincide with the moments when Colleen and Tallulah truly merge.

Zenk doesn't "turn into" Bankhead; rather, as planned, she compensates and contributes as she copies. It's a vision of the superstar that is clearer, tidier, more compelling and far more beautiful. More importantly, it has been optimized to exude the essence of that old Tallulah magic, and it does. In fact, it's right in Tallulah's wheelhouse. After all, Bankhead was known for her persistent and pervasive theatricality. For her, the whole world really was a stage; the characters, human. Zenk’s performance would appear to be an apt tribute, one which blurs so many boundaries to great effect.

The choice of strategy behind the production's re-creation of Tallulah was poetic and brilliant. It was a direction their muse, Bankhead herself, would have been proud to go in. Zenk's assumption of the mantle of Tallulah Bankheadness (like Tallulah's original transformation from private Tallulah to public Tallulah) is natural and logical; emotionally pungent and visually enthralling; steadfast and unsentimental. Of course, ultimately, it was for the most part only skin deep. The real transformation came from within.

Their chosen conceptualization did in fact dictate that there would be a great deal of Zenk in this Tallulah. And it works very well, in part because it is so honest. At no time does the production insult the audience with a single pretense of verisimilitude; instead, the undeniable fact that Zenk is not Tallulah actually serves to galvanize the transformation. As she stewards us through the endless complications and contradictions of her character's character, Ms. Zenk succeeds in creating a closer and closer emotional bond with the audience, imbuing us with a marvelously tangible sense that Zenk, in a way, came closer to elucidating the real humanitarian essence of what made Tallulah ‘Tallulah’, than the pickled and glib Bankhead herself was always capable of.

Zenk with Michael Rhodes, who plays film editor
Danny - Photo: Sue Coflin: Max Photos
As a Harvard College graduate and an avowed homosexual, it can't surprise you that I've been a student of Tallulah-ness for decades. Celebrity, irony, blasphemy, and so on... I had grasped the definitions in high school. But, it wasn't until the matinee last Sunday that I finally accurately experienced Tallulah's unique spiritual truth.

For those of you unfamiliar with “Looped,” a gem of a play by Matthew Lombardo, it takes place over the course of a single visit to a sound studio in order to re-record, or "loop," a single sentence in Bankhead's final film. It is based on true events. There are precisely three players: the sound tech (Steven Austin Young as "Steve") the film editor (Michael Rhodes as "Danny Miller") and, of course, Ms. B. herself.

Act One is a psychological arms race, as Tallulah indulges in a battle of wills with her gentleman co-stars that escalates savagely and thus hilariously. Act Two - and we have to be careful here not to give anything away - is different in tone, richly rewarding the audience for joining in on the adventure along with Zenk. The second half of “Looped” is, to me, a testament to the power of empathy and the relevance of philosophy, as well as a toast to one woman's unique, God-given talent.

Zenk and Rhodes are joined by Steven Austin Young,
who plays sound technician Steve -
Photo: Sue Coflin: Max Photos
But fear not; Act Two is also very, very funny.

Although I would estimate that four-fifths of the work done on stage (as designated in the script) rests on Zenk's shoulders, Steve and Danny are still essential characters. Yet as written, it's almost impossible to maintain a fruitful balance of energy, with the electric stage presence inherent in the character of Tallulah Bankhead inescapable. Nevertheless, Young is entirely authentic, if not always 100% compelling, in the practical (and rather banal) tradesperson role.

Rhodes, on the other hand, must navigate a difficult dynamic as Danny transitions from challenging, even antagonizing, Bankhead to (spoiler alert) ultimately celebrating her. Playing the "straight man" can be disorienting and even stifling for an actor. Danny in particular is a role that can be challenging, with the character's conservative, even insipid, nature providing precious little motivation with which to shape an appropriate structural balance with the bigger-than-life personality and overwhelming charm of the lead. In most scenes, Rhodes does manage to temper exposition with entertainment. It is a challenge to sensibly maintain the boring but necessary logistical illusion of workplace bureaucracy while simultaneously conveying nearly debilitating ennui and seething frustration. Rhodes deserves praise for his success in threading that needle, as the credibility of his Danny's environment is strong enough to set up powerful contrasts which pay dividends during the emotional climax of the show.

Last Sunday afternoon, one of laughter and discovery, was heightened with a sense of history and a perfect whiff of whimsy. Zenk masterfully avoided the pitfalls of impersonation, hagiography and sentimentality, forging, as a thespian, a path to "the real" that skillfully evoked, and then transcended, historical fact. We had so much fun on character safari alongside Zenk as she exposed the triumphs and flaws of Ms. Bankhead's that I was very pleasantly surprised that by the time we were all standing and applauding, I had not only learned more about Tallulah, but also about human nature in general and even about myself. It is a gift that I will treasure for years to come.

***

Seeing "Looped" - What You Need To Know

Cast:
Colleen Zenk, Michael Rhodes and Steven Austin Young

Playwright:
Matthew Lombardo

Production Team:
Laura Margolis, Director

The design team includes: Randall Parsons (Set Design), Frank DenDanto, (Lighting Design), George Veale (Costume Design), Phil Elman (Sound Design/Technical Director), Dan Udell (Video Design). The Stage Manager is Jen Dobies, Assistant Stage Managers are Greg Cross and Matt Michael.

Upcoming Performance:
Wednesday at 7:30 pm: July 24.
Thursday at 7:30 pm: July 25.
Friday at 8:00 pm: July 19, July 26.
Saturday at 8:00 pm: July 20, July 27.
Saturday Matinee at 2:00 pm: July 27.
Sunday Matinee at 2:00 pm: July 21, July 28.

A Talk Back with the cast and directors post-performance: July 25.

Tickets:
For ticket information and to purchase, call (518) 822-9667 or visit stageworkshudson.org.

Location:
Stageworks/Hudson
41-A Cross Street
Hudson, NY 12534
(518) 822-9667

Kevin Mulcahy Jr. is a Harvard alum who is currently working as a staff contributor at welovesoaps.com writing theater and web series reviews as well as other in-depth features. Read his reviews, features and interviews here. To contact Kevin, email kevin@welovesoaps.com.

3 comments:

  1. CZ looks like she's having a ball with this!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Colleen as Tallulah was even better than I imagined, and I had high expectations! It was an easy car ride from NYC and very much worth the trip.

    ReplyDelete


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