The prospect of seeing a solo performance often, admittedly, triggers a silent panic in one whose job it is to dole out an objective opinion about it. As that they are often based upon a performer’s life experiences, one-man (or, in this case, one-woman) shows often carry with them the possibility of turning out to either be really, really good — or really, really, really bad. There is the addtitional worry of what one might say should it result in the latter: can one dismiss the truth of someone’s experience if it isn’t performed in a certain way, or simply not to one’s liking? What then? It hardly seems fair — or kind, at that. This is a challenge not only performers must face in sharing their stories onstage, but one critics must also face, in witnessing them.
In the case of screen siren and performance artist Heather Litteer, she finds a way — much like the title of the particular show in question — to turn some possibly sour lemons into some sweet, delightfully-raunchy Lemonade. This metaphor holds well in representing her current onstage life, as well as the onscreen life around which Lemonade is structured. She opens the show as Heather Poetess, uttering a line that eventually becomes an eerie refrain throughout the evening: “I’m not a hooker…but I play one on TV.”
For roughly the past twenty years, Ms. Litteer has made a career out of playing hookers, junkies and strippers in both film and television. “I’m arrested by pigs, I’m ripped from brothels,” she continues to say in that same opening scene. “I’m whipped and I’m wrapped in chains…does anyone make love anymore?” She describes her roles with gusto, each new one prefaced by a one-sided phone call with her agent. Her comedic descriptions of each role is peppered with dark, twisted humor, suggestive of her own observations on the ways women are exploited on film. Whether playing a blowsy Russian girl named Nadia, one-half of a pair of lesbian junkies, or simply billed as Bored Hooker #1, each role and its accompanying scenario is made increasingly more ridiculous than the last, serving as further evidence of the indeed perverse business of sex (and women) as commodity.
In stark contrast to the flamboyant roles for which she would become known, Litteer’s own beginnings as a young girl growing up in Georgia were, considerably, much humbler and innocent by comparison. The actress’ early childhood largely involve her “Steel Magnolia” of a mother Nancy, whom she affectionately calls a “walking, talking Tennessee Williams character.” Here, Litteer goes on to describe a younger Heather already showing signs of what is to come, painting for us a picture of a childhood filled with Halloweens dressed up in her mother’s suits as the “Advertising and Marketing director of Vogue Magazine.” Many of these anecdotes of Litteer’s past self are juxtaposed beautifully against the struggles of her present self, and exemplifies the actress’ ability to successfully mix the bitter with the sweet. This becomes especially true as Present Heather attempts to balance her professional pratfalls in New York with news of her mother’s own slow decline into disease back home.
The precarious act of balancing such a fine line involves just stirring in the right amount of gravitas to counteract the awkwardness of being the sole performer onstage. This takes a certain kind of physical stamina to accomplish, one which has been achieved in different ways in other solo performances: 2014’s Forgetting the Details (previously reviewed here, for the New York International Fringe Festival) saw Nicole Maxali took on the varied mannerisms of her family members; while that same year, Daliya Karnofsky had the assistance of backup dancers for …And She Bakes, Live (also reviewed here).
For her part, Litteer falls somewhere between these two, which is not to say that the end result isn’t as effective. In fact, her slightly less-refined performance makes her Lemonade all the more raw and real in its portrayal. Here, she instead adopts a thick, Southern-Belle accent (one that would, surely, make even Rhett Butler melt), along with some charming, old-world Nancy-isms in order to bring her mother to life. Her performance never ceases to command the stage with striking, unabashed self-awareness, eventually culminating in a daring striptease at play’s end — proving that while baring it all for an audience isn’t always easy, doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun along the way.
Images courtesy of Heather Litteer.