‘Meow Meow’ opens with a glitzy bang at Berkeley Rep

Annie Lu/Staff

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She’s performed all over the world from “Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, and now… Berkeley,” actress Meow Meow jests sarcastically. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season opener, “An Audience with Meow Meow,” written by and starring the international cabaret actress, singer and dancer opened last Friday with a glitzy bang — that is, a glitzy bang riddled with embarrassing mishaps, on-stage accidents, injured dancers and a production crew so frustrated that they turned the lights off on the entire performance of their starlet’s prima donna off-script antics.

Those antics however, are actually the humorous plot points of the show, and are entirely scripted for the comedic forefront of “Meow Meow.”

Meow Meow, with her voluptuously curled hair and glitter- and feather-infused stage presence descends from the ceiling atop her gloriously large name in lights as she sings the opening song to meet her hunky sidekick dancers, Sergei (Michael Balderrama) and Jonathan (Bob Gaynor). Her glamorously seductive acting and sequin-laden vocal chords steal the audience’s attention with the high energy and cabaret charm of the show. But it all quickly goes awry when Meow Meow “accidentally” injures her dancers, sending them away to quit the production mid-dance routine.

Though the succession of plotted accidents keep the show entertaining and light-hearted, they quickly grow excessive. While Meow Meow presumably injures Sergei and Jonathan, a sandbag falls downstage — a visibly cliché, tired and almost Looney Tune-like performance joke. These constant, purposely done blunders that plague the performance strain what is already a difficult to define production.

“Meow Meow” stands out from the rest of Berkeley Rep’s season because it lacks a discernible plot. Presented as a cabaret performance, “Meow Meow” sells itself as a night of care-free, electrifying song and dance, but under that guise, “Meow Meow” performs as an almost existentialist musical play about persevering in the face of life’s unstoppable tragedies.

Which eludes the audience until almost halfway through when Meow Meow proclaims to her patrons, “This is the theatre! I should be asking the big questions. Is there life after death? Is there a god? Why are there so many homeless people outside of the stage door? Do we need children to feel fulfilled? Or are they just institutionalized narcissism?” Up until that point, she leaves the audience witness to stumble after stumble — Meow Meow leaves the stage to bring in her “emergency” prop box and crew members walk on to reprimand her diva behavior and deliver the producers’ frustrations. They rouse a few laughs, but the slapstick situations displace attention from the reality of Meow Meow’s show.

“I believe a song can change the world,” she says of her artistic commitment. The show excels when she connects directly with her audience, both literally and figuratively. When her dancers abandon her, Meow Meow coyly enters the house seats to pick random audience members to replace them, asking with her bashful sarcasm, “Are you busy?” Meow Meow’s sharp and engaging improv skills alongside her luckily willing and surprised audience members make for the most hilarious scenes.

When she repeatedly asks, “If I die tonight, will you remember me?” the theatre immediately answers with a resounding “Yes.” Underneath all the fabulous costumes and impressive stage design — including a floor-to-ceiling wall of romantically painted 3-D sculpted roses (the fantastic, truly inspired work of Neil Murray) — lies a vulnerable Meow Meow grappling with her deeply personal anxieties on human fragility. “Must the show go on?” she asks.

“Meow Meow’s” unconventional construction feels like a formidable mixture of cabaret, stand-up, improv and traditional drama that is unlike any performance available in theaters now. While it’s difficult to make out the plot from the start, the crux of it all is in the very title. This presents itself very much as “An Audience with Meow Meow” not just for the literal moments when theater-goers stand alongside her on stage or converse with her live, but also because she makes it touchingly clear that the heart of theater — the very audience — gives Meow Meow the ultimate reason to go on.

“An Audience with Meow Meow” is playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre until Oct. 19.

Contact Jennifer Wong at [email protected].