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Theater review: Jackie at New York City Center

  Monday 4th March 2013

Opening on March 5th at New York City Center is Jackie, a solo play by Elfriede Jelinek – author of The Piano Teacher, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. The play’s subject, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, is an image indelibly cast in American history, an emblem of the death of America’s Golden Age, and a symbol of elegance, grace and female power. But what happens when the lights go out? What’s left when you remove the clothes, the make-up, the public persona – the woman beyond the cameras, is she an icon anymore?

Tina Benko portrays Jackie from all angles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The play captures the writer’s distinctive, highly feminized style. It starts with an open pit from which Jackie appears pulling out three silver dummies that symbolize the dead president and their dead children. Immaculately dressed in a beige trench coat, peach-colored dress, a scarf around her head, pearls, big sunglasses – the signature Jackie look – she says: “I am a little girl inside a woman. You should stay simple and that takes guts.” The play, directed by Tea Alagic, stars Tina Benko, who recently played the title role in Toni Morrison’s Desdemona at the Barbican Theatre in London. Benko aptly portrays Jackie from all angles, from the fake smile to the tears, from the pill-popping to the retro dancing to the puke in her bag. At Friday’s preview, she did some brilliant impromptu improvisation:  when a woman’s phone rang, without breaking character, Tina said in Jackie’s elite accent, “I can’t leave, but you can,” and the auditorium burst into laughter. 

Submission – a central topic in The Piano Teacher – is present here as well, but contrastingly in the form of submission to public image. “Look at everything in my clothes,” Jackie declaims, “I am dead but I won’t die.” Jelinek’s Jackie is confessing about her husband’s lovers, about the diseases he gave her before the pearls, about shapes and materials, about the blood sprayed over the pink Chanel suit she famously wore when JFK was assassinated, about the death itself. The floor is covered by autumn leaves and the cameras are gone; only Jackie is left – the one we wouldn’t see on the news. Marilyn Monroe is presented in the shape of Barbie dolls, a symbol of light, while Jackie hugs herself in gloom:  “There is nothing more vulnerable than light – one sweep of the hand and it’s gone, but darkness remains,” the heroine says.    

Jackie is part of Jelinek’s cycle of Princess Plays, all featuring female models such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Princess Di – a satirical counterpoint to Shakespeare’s histories, which in German are called Kings’ Plays. It is a deeply emotional yet controversial philosophical journey, an exploration of the inner pain and struggle of the USA’s ultimate 20th century princess, and a stylish monologue about the glamor and hypocrisy of everyday life.

Verdict: ••••

Martina Dechevska

Photos: Carol Rosegg

Jackie is on New York City centre until March 31st 2013, for further information or to book visit here.

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