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Review: 'Marlene and the Machine'

Bearded Ladies' brilliant cabaret pushes the boundaries of emotional chaos and rational control.

By Jim Rutter


Each day, Internet users upload nearly half a billion photos to Facebook, another 60-plus hours of video per minute to YouTube, and post several hundred million messages on Twitter.

I thought of this penchant for compulsive oversharing while watching the Bearded  Ladies' intense, illuminating Marlene and the Machine, a cabaret that probes the boundaries between the chaos of uncontrolled emotion and the veneer of manufactured control.

And who better to explore these themes than that icon of carefully constructed character, Marlene Dietrich (John Jarboe)? Together with performers Liz Filios, Kate Raines and Kristen Bailey, Jarboe presents a seminar on "Affect Management," a 90-minute tutorial on manipulating others by mastering your own emotions.

As Filios and Raines enact grotesque choreography and exaggerated pantomime, the quartet weaves in songs Dietrich turned famous (from Friedrich Hollaender), and more contemporary selections about isolation, narcissism and manipulation by Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple, not to mention a mocking rendition of lyrics penned by Fred Rogers (yes, Mr. Rogers).

Jarboe's lanky frame totters on platform heels, lunging into the audience, frightening and entrancing with a dangerous charisma. Rebecca Kanach dressed the cast in tattered gauze dresses, fraying lederhosen and vinyl head wraps that blur the lines of gender. Bailey's stunning turn startles with a fascinating androgyny.

The group's German expressionist approach (think Fritz Lang) and comic theatricality lends distance from the darker themes, though Jarboe's teasing indicates the true targets. While machines can control their responses, "it's hard being human" he laments, dealing constantly with emotions, "the magic tricks of the body." Lighthearted touches (and forced audience involvement) extract probing questions from the lyrics—"If we didn't have faces, would we still want to live?"—that touch on our daily interface with machines.

By the time you're reading this review, I will have already Facebooked, tweeted and tumblred this piece, expressing faceless thoughts to unknown recipients. And as I type, I'm haunted by the show's final image: Jarboe's hand, outstretched in an unrelenting yearning to reach, to grasp, to connect.

Marlene and the Machine. Runs until December 15 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $20 to $25. Information: 215-546-7824 or