Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
The Trick of Playing Memoir: “It’s Only Lipstick” at the Whitefire
As I have mentioned before, there is a danger in writing your own performance material. Never is this more true than when it is a form of memoir. Many an author I have known has pointed out that when you are writing anything intensely personal it takes time. First you must write it, then you must remove, gradually, all the things which may matter to the writer, but do not advance what the reader or audience needs for it to be art.
This is the only real problem with “It’s Only Lipstick, now finishing a run at the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks. Claudia Di Martino, in relating her life story, has an interesting tale to tell. As a matter of fact she has about three different interesting tales to tell, and she does. Although each is able to engage the audience, that necessary trim would make them so much better, and avoid a sense of repetitiveness, and occasional disjointedness, that makes what could be fairly transcendent have less than the desired impact.
Di Martino grew up in a strict Italian Catholic family. Through dint of hard work she became a high ranking executive at a string of companies – mostly marketing cosmetics – all of which are detailed along with portraits of the variety of oppressive bosses. The life of a female executive wore her to a frazzle until she finally quit to follow her bliss and become a fairly consistently working character actor. In the process of this shift she details the religious conversion experience which now centers her life.
And believe me, that’s a lot to put into an hour and a half, at least if you are going to leave in as many details and personalities as she does, in the way that she does. To some extent, this last lies at the feet of director Jessica Lynn Johnson, who could have offered some editing advice, and tempered the way Di Martino goes about presenting it to the audience.
The thing is, Di Martino is obviously a talented actor. This is underscored by a video vignette at the end showing snips from the many filmed performances she has given in the recent past.
However, “… Lipstick” starts out almost over the top, with the high intensity health scare which convinces her to leave her executive life, deciding she doesn’t need it because “it’s only lipstick.” When you start that ramped up, however, it’s tough to give the play a climax later that goes beyond it, and that is what is called for. Instead, every other major life emotion is just paralleling the first.
With such intense emotional highs, the calmer moments need a lot of variety to keep the audience engaged. Here that’s a problem.
The bulk of the play covers her life in cosmetics marketing. In the telling, every male boss man-spreads his slimy way through her life. Each exchange involves DiMartino speaking in one voice, doing a 180 – 360 degree turn to speak as the other person, every time, acting out each conversation word for word, over and over. Some of the portraits are quite amusing, but there are so many, and so many are similar that at least a variety of approach to presenting them could make it less repetitive.
Her descriptions of coming to love acting again are fun, and could be central to her sense of self-discovery, if featured more. Her deeply profound religious experiences have the potential to be wrenching and profound, but her elation is played at the same level as her anguish at the start, creating an odd sense of emotional repetition even when that isn’t what’s really happening. Again, much of this is how she was directed.
And one is left wondering which is more important. Is it the shift we thought we were looking at from the start, from the corporate world to the acting world? Or is the religious experience which interrupts the story?
There is no arguing that Claudia Di Martino has had an extraordinary life. The number of times she has landed on her feet is impressive, and the variety of things she has proved herself skilled at – whether or not they gave her joy – is also worthy of note. If she can take a deep breath, and continue to edit her work (as good memoirists must), she could have something a lot more powerful on her hands to show us all.
In the meantime, seeing “It’s Only Lipstick” will give you a story to ponder, and a performer to get to know.
What: “It’s Only Lipstick” When: final performance 8 p.m. Thursday, August 17 Where: The Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks How Much: $25 Info: itsonlyliptick.brownpapertickets.com