Heidi Van blows up the Monroe mythos in Fishtank’s Marilyn/God

If you haven’t yet seen Marilyn/God — the chilling, one-woman vehicle for the Fishtank Performance Studio’s Heidi Van — stop reading this review and buy a ticket. It’s the kind of show best confronted cold.

If you have seen it, you know what I mean. The one-line synopsis — Marilyn Monroe auditions for heaven, judged by an audience of her aborted babies — is nightmare fuel. It’s also oversimple, saddling a nuanced, uncomfortably intimate script with the curb appeal of Starlight Express.

But as the (apocryphal) quote goes, if you can’t handle playwright Rosary Hartel O’Neill at her worst, you don’t deserve her at her best.

The show opens in an autopsy theater in the wee hours of August 5, 1962 — the day Marilyn Monroe died from an overdose of barbiturates.

Monroe’s death was at the time ruled a probable suicide. Since then, a laundry list of conspiracy theories has taken root (communist murder plot! FBI assassination!). But O’Neill’s view — an accidental overdose — hews closest to the Monroe many remember, a life-drunk star with ambitions to match.

O’Neill’s Monroe greets her death with impatience and defiance, refusing to obey audition instructions that appear on a heavenly marquee. “I’m not dying!” she insists and ticks off a list of corporeal anchors. “I’m studying Freud. Training with Lee. I’m still in shape!”

Van starts the show coffin-still, masked by a somber white sheet as the audience files in. Even in the Fishtank’s voyeuristic space, the rise and fall of her chest is barely perceptible. At Saturday’s performance, Van was so discreet that a man seated near me yelped when the lights dimmed and the corpse moved.

That commitment is the first of many physical and vocal feats Van performs. She floats with ethereal lightness, stretches like a cat in the sun. Her voice maps the contours of Monroe’s husky purr without ever affecting flirtation. (The program credits Scott Stackhouse as her vocal coach.) More impressive still is her ability to shed any scrap of self-consciousness. Though she’s within spitting distance of the audience for more than an hour, her focus never wavers. We feel spellbound, invisible — as strangers must have in Monroe’s presence. We’re tourists in the world Van creates here. She’s not interested in ours.

Director Jeff Church steers her masterfully, exploiting the small space in a staging attuned to both power and practical constraints. Mark Exline’s dynamic set masks several surprises — late in the play, a mirror wall emerges from behind a white drape, allowing us a clear view of Van from any angle — and Church refashions each piece to suit his purpose. In one memorable tableau, a white sheet clings to Van as if by chance, subtly evoking Monroe’s iconic cocktail dress from The Seven Year Itch.

Projection and lighting designer Jamie Leonard makes an indelible impression with tone-shifting lights and projections that undulate like pond ripples on a clever, ceiling-mounted screen. Sound designers Jae Shanks and Jason Bauer suggest movement through the supernatural world with eerie, atmospheric sound effects and voiceovers that ebb and flow like a radio signal.

If the play falters, it does so in a fraught sequence addressing Monroe’s back-room abortions. When signs from heaven demand that she explain — and number — these procedures, Monroe launches into a lengthy speech about the pressures of stardom, the sleaze of Hollywood agents and the (wanted) child she lost while married to playwright Arthur Miller. In less capable hands, the lines could feel leaden, but Van resists melodrama and makes Monroe’s defense one of clear-eyed resignation. The scene is tough to play but even tougher to project: Leonard thankfully refrains from painting the ceiling with bloody fetuses, but the demonic-eyed cherubs are heavy-handed enough.

Still, eliding Monroe’s tragedies would have been worse. O’Neill and, to a greater extent, Van draw on them to paint Monroe as both indomitable and fatally naïve. The title’s ambiguous punctuation (is Monroe struggling with God, or is she God herself?) underscores the tension within a woman who spent her career channeling a powerful drive through narrow opportunities, building a career on sex so she could strive for sincerity.

Our collective image of Monroe seems to shrink with each passing year. Praise to Van and Church for banishing the supplicant sex goddess and keeping the woman in view.

Categories: A&E, Stage