at the Oak Theatre

June 16 and 17

The fan was clutching an autographed photograph of Sandra Bernhard. She told me she hoped that if she flashed the photograph, Bernhard might see it and somehow recognize her as her one true fan.

But I was sandwiched among many Bernhard fanatics, people who had written letters to her, had waited in line for eight hours, had picnicked on Western Avenue. They listened to her records, rented her performance videos, memorized her monologues and songs from start to finish. Eerily, the character Bernhard had captured so clearly and insightfully in The King of Comedy seemed to have been incarnated next to me and was shrieking “Sandra” in my ear. She told me she’d also sent Bernhard two letters during the last few years, one of which was “very important.” The couple on my other side said that though they like Bernhard–because she’ll do anything, they admire her nerve–they are not fanatics, they have lives of their own.

But who is Sandra Bernhard? A performance artist, chanteuse, or stand-up comedian? The privileged rebel offspring of a doctor and an artist? The ranting girlfriend/buddy of Robert DeNiro?

I had a clue from an HBO special I’d seen a few months back, when she did a routine with a martini glass that reminded me of several things. It was a feminist parody of Dean Martin’s world-weary, pseudosophisticated, vodka-soaked style of comedy, but it also had a little of W.C. Fields and a little of the “diva in the doldrums” persona of a Judy Garland or a Shelley Winters. “How can she portray this person without a hint of self-pity?” I wondered to myself. As soon as this thought crossed my mind she started crying–big drunken sobs–and I started laughing. Here was the self-pity, and it was so big, so exaggerated, that it was hilarious. It was also something Martin and Fields would never have done in front of an audience–act totally, sloppily, self-pityingly drunk. She waved away her tears with a gloved hand and introduced her next guest.

After witnessing this bit I resolved to see more of what Bernhard could do. This small routine seemed a hybrid of performance art and stand-up comedy–twisting our expectations of both.

When she did this same routine, sans tears, at the Oak Theatre, she took it a step further, making it more confusing, spare, and bare. She entered to the swelling sound of the audience’s “Saaandraaaah!” and her band’s rendition of “Fever,” stumbling out like a starlet from La Dolce Vita, resplendent in a black gown and sunglasses; one hand held a cigarette and delicately touched her forehead; she held her martini glass in the other. Seemingly disoriented, she just stood and stared through her glasses at the audience for a very long time. Actors do not like empty spaces as a rule, whereas performance artists (and artists in general) use white space as a frame or to drive home a concept. I’ve never seen anyone use so much empty space as she did–so much as to be almost uncomfortable. But after a time the empty space framed and explained the picture.

And where did Bernhard take it? Dropping every appearance of drunkenness, she took it into the song “Fever,” parodying Peggy Lee and the beat poets (she told/sung a monologue about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Joni Mitchell); from there to gay life (mentioning that Whitney is out, Merv is out). She stopped singing and pulled out a long flashlight, flashed it at the audience and asked, “Who’s gay in Chicago?” She sang about her life, and our culture, with an unexpected lyricism and poignance. As she added her own words (to this and to later songs), “Fever” became a song of pride and strength. She added brilliant Van Morrison-esque scat singing, then asked “Who hasn’t come out yet?” adding “We love you!” as if in encouragement. Later she said, “I don’t need my gay brothers, I don’t need my gay sisters–I love everybody!” That carefully enunciated “everybody,” and the way she pointed her flashlight into our faces and nodded, netted the entire audience in one fell swoop, and she had us in her net for the remainder of the show.

She did another monologue, using the persona of a rather effete, upper-crust woman who tells us that the 60s ended with the Sharon Tate murders. Another character is a jet-setting model who wonders if her eyebrows are straight and going in the right direction. Then Bernhard, apparently in her own persona, mentioned being in Eastern Europe with Bruce Willis, who was depressed because no one there recognized him. This provided the occasion for an incredibly twisted story about getting a massage from a rather indifferent masseur who smoked a cigarette while he massaged her inner thighs. (Why her thighs and not her upper back, neck, or shoulders? Because that’s where she holds the most tension.) She didn’t want to seem rude in regard to Eastern European customs. It was such a “funky, disgusting experience” that she just couldn’t help it, she came–at which point she said to the masseur, “Oh, I guess I fell asleep there for a moment.” Quickly she left and headed back to her hotel room and Bruce Willis. In another story she talks about a love affair with a beautiful woman who “held centuries of high European culture in her eyes.” In a brilliant monologue packed with non sequiturs she reaches conclusions about theories of contemporary art, deconstruction, semiotics, Marxist theory–and finally says that her glamorous lover got confused and started having affairs with producers.

Bernhard changes almost all her costumes onstage, with subtlety and aplomb. She slips into the barest thong bikini, a little black dress, an East Indian getup (backstage), and a fringed bikini top with a fringed skirt. Singing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” she turns it into a song about Desert Storm. She tells a story about her adolescence that seems not only almost true but a metaphor for our culture: a friend who did too many drugs and was always late but was also innocent and sweet disappeared one day, just like the 60s themselves. In another persona, Bernhard’s a rather dim-witted disco/health club dilettante who dabbles in cocaine; Bernhard pantomimes talking, flirting, and dancing. When she takes her dancing partner back to her apartment, Bernhard acts out an interlude in which she climaxes, screams out “I think I love you–don’t leave me, hold me!” then says “Would you mind leaving now, I have to get to work early tomorrow.” She tells a coming-out story. She sings “Lady Madonna” and “Little Red Corvette.”

At the end of the performance, when everyone stood, clapped, and cheered, Bernhard looked first at the audience, then at her band with an expression of real wonderment. Her band looked back at her, grinning. She seemed genuinely amazed that she’d moved this audience, which ranged from gay to straight, from young to middle-aged.

Whatever you call what Bernhard is doing, it’s not strictly stand-up comedy. Her monologues last too long, and they don’t always have punch lines. Some of the jokes begin but don’t really end. Characters dissolve back into Bernhard herself, or fade into a song. Refreshingly, her performances are not linear. And though the evening was seamlessly orchestrated, Bernhard herself has an awkward, heroic quality. When she danced, her fringed bra became skewed on one breast, and she had difficulty lighting her cigarette at the beginning of the program, sneering first at the cigarette, then at the audience. Her controlled, just-beneath-the-surface rage is reminiscent of Karen Finley’s work. The way Bernhard makes reality seem fluid and the way she calls into question the existence of the fourth wall together make what she does seem performance, an evolution of what we think of as comedy.

As for the fans, Bernhard managed to straighten them out once and for all by saying “Shut up! I’m giving you attention by being here, I don’t need to give you any more attention than what you’re getting!” Even the young girl sitting next to me seemed to straighten up, and she didn’t pull out her autographed photo even once.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Douglas Keeve.