Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lily Tomlin's Still Got "It"

Lily Tomlin
Arscht Center, Miami
May 6, 2012

This was my first time to see Lily Tomlin live. She did not disappoint. The thing that struck me most is that this seventy-two year old woman moved with the agility of an athlete. She walked all over the stage, she stood, she sat, she kneeled, she jumped, reclined, she sat on the floor, she danced, she skipped, and she never stopped talking. A few times she would drop to one knee and raise her arms and bow her head in an exaggerated gesture to the audience (basically claiming success for some zinger she delivered). For over ninety minutes she performed at this pace, and the only sign of fatigue happened briefly when she had to break character to get a drink of water; she covered for it by saying in Edith Anne’s voice, “Forgive Lily; she’s old and can’t make saliva anymore.” Otherwise, she was energetic, nimble, and indefatigable. That alone was an inspiration.

The show was pieced together from several fragments, like an energetic, performance quilt. There was basic stand-up followed by some autobiographical narrative about her childhood (giving the audience a glimpse of her provincial upbringing and family life) followed by the resurrection of characters from her early days of comedic entertainment. One flowed seamlessly into the next and even though she brought characters from the past back to life she simultaneously updated them. For example, Edith Anne now has an iPod and Ernestine no longer works for the phone company but for an insurance company.

Tomlin moved from one character to the next (and from characters to herself, though even her “self” was obviously something of a stage persona) with no costume changes, no special make-up, only a few lighting changes, and almost no props. Her set was very simple, a living room set on stage right, open bare space center stage, and some steps leading to “nowhere” on stage left. Behind the living room set was a set of stairs that led to what was supposed to be Lily’s teenage bedroom.

On the back wall (upstage) there was a screen and on the screen short videos were played; sometimes a vintage video from her earlier work, sometimes a new video of one of her updated characters, sometimes a photograph of her family or of herself as a child or teenager. After a minute or two of a video clip (or a photo), she would launch right back into her live shtick, usually as a continuation of whatever the screen had introduced. Some of her “iconic” monologues were included while most of the performance was new material, or an update of older work.

In addition to comedy monologues, performed memoir, multi-media presentations, some of her classical characters such as Edith Anne, Ernestine, Mrs. Beasley, the Consumer Advocate, Tommy Velour (I love gender-bending performance!), and bits from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Tomlin also included at the end of her show a question and answer time. Before the show people could write questions on cards and at the end of the show she would read and answer some of them. The final question she read and answered was MINE. I have now been part of a Lily Tomlin performance! (So where’s my royalty check and name in the Playbill?). It was actually a personal thrill.

I was afraid my question was frivolous, silly, certainly “queer”, but she seemed to enjoy talking about it. Not only did she choose to read and answer it, but it may have been the longest time she spent on a question and it was the question that closed the show.

My question was what was it like to work with Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, and Lady Joan Plowright in Tea With Mussolini. Others had asked about her work in Nine to Five, her political views, etc., but she seemed to love having the chance to talk about working with deities of the British theatrical pantheon. She delighted in sharing how Dench and Smith are chain smokers who can’t stop smoking long enough to eat even. She mentioned how the English actors were polite to her (and to Cher, another American in the film), but how they were usually pretty cliquish among themselves. She mentioned Judi Dench’s fair complexion and how she was so taken with the English acting giants that she would walk around with an umbrella trying to shield Dame Judi from the Mediterranean sun. And she laughed that when one of the three members of the British acting triumvirate was unavailable for dinner, that she would be honored to be invited to substitute for the missing person. So if Lady Joan was absent, she might get to have dinner with the chain smoking Smith and Dench, and so on.

True stories, improvisation, skits and sketches in character, multi-media presentations, movement that would exhaust someone half her age, and even a chance to include the audience in the actual performance all made for a delightful evening of entertainment. And, more importantly, gave me many ideas of what to include and how to shape future performances of my own.

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