REVIEW: Stephanie Wolfe takes on Lily Tomlin
There are one-person shows that are linked to certain famous actors, such as Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain or, more recently, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as LBJ. In 1977, Lily Tomlin, then a recent grad from the television series Laugh In, brought her one-person show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe to Broadway and put her indelible mark on the production.
Written by Tomlin’s muse and life partner Jane Wagner, the piece was an agile, intricate and often hilarious take on the hot button issues of the day – like women’s lib, the sexual revolution, cultural attitudes and the place of women in an uncertain world.
Tomlin delivered such a stamp on the work that it kept other performers from taking it on – not so Edmonton’s own Stephanie Wolfe, who puts in a riveting display in this Teatro La Quindicina production. It plays through July 2 at the Varscona Theatre.
For a couple of decades now Wolfe has demonstrated a rare ability to play all sorts of characters on stage, screen and video games like Baldur’s Gate. She is also a highly regarded improv artist and a founder of the long running improvised soap opera, Die-Nasty.
In The Search for Signs …, with ingenious set design by Stephanie Bahniuk, imagery by Matt Schuurman and brisk direction from Dave Horak, Wolfe strides on stage in a simple shift and leggings and begins to processes all her experience to create a unique world peopled with well-drawn characters. We meet Trudy, a gruff and (by her own admission) crazy bag lady, who acts as a “creative consultant” for visiting aliens. Trudy is a savant – a street philosopher who through her mental haze, speaks the truth of the ages. The aliens communicate to her through her umbrella hat and she tries to explain to them the society they are investigating. She is having a particularly difficult time explaining Andy Warhol’s Pop Art using a soup can and the painter’s most famous work. “Soup,” she says, pointing at the can. “Art” she says, holding up the painting.
We won’t meet anyone quite as interesting as Trudy in the next two hours. But we will be introduced to a whole gallery of familiar 1970s characters Tomlin made famous – most of them clinging to a transitory illusion of happiness. There’s Chrissie, whose life is an endless loop of failure as she tries to find her happiness through physical exercise. Agnes Angst is a teen performance artist who drives her grandparents crazy. The two oldsters squabble away, blaming each other for the dead end they are living. There’s the terminally jaded Kate who observes, “It’s one thing to tolerate a boring marriage – but a boring affair does not make sense.”
In the second half, as much commentary as comedy, we meet Lynn, exhausted from living what was the suburban dream of the time. You were supposed to “have it all”- husband, career, kids and at the same time raise your own consciousness. When life gets in the way of the dream she ruefully observes, “If I’d have known that this is having it all – I’d have asked for less.”
These people may be out there on society’s edge, but Wolfe approaches her creations with a great deal of sympathy.
The actress gives us a distinct and fully realized arcade of ’70’s characters who are tilting at such issues as transcendental meditation, Star Wars action figures, saving the whales, water beds and tantric sex. Also babies, philandering husbands, failed marriages and friends who have children more talented than yours.
Therein lies the main problem with the evening: The show has not weathered the decades well and many of the challenges that seemed so important at the time seem quite inconsequential now.
The search for intelligent life has moved on, but this play has not – so the performer outshines the material.