Bringing theatrical life to rebellious types who test the slopes of the abyss requires specifics. In Randal Myler’s new play about Janis Joplin, such details are given rare dramatic conviction, showing that for her, there was no turning back from the lurking dark, only a return to what refuge drink and drugs could bring.
In its premiere performance, “Love, Janis” — based on Joplin’s sister’s book , which largely relies on letters from the singer — tells of the rise and fall of a popular artist but is not just another rise-and-fall story. It is a dramatic tale of artistic struggles during a period of cultural upheaval.
Janis found the good times in her singing, and let the good times roll, although she came to feel herself “a victim of my own insides.” She pushed herself to a an incredible degree of vocal intensity.
With the stage shared by the swaggering, raunchy Onstage Janis and the vulnerable, private Janis, the dualism experienced by popular performers during this upheaval finds potent realization.
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The production may have been inspired by Laura Joplin’s book, but the real inspiration is the casting of two singular theater talents, Laura Theodore and Catherine Curtin, as the two facets of Janis Joplin.
The letters bring authentic emotion to the private person. “I cannot be a star and have only 65 dollars,” she writes. She recommends that Laura, her young sister, read “The Hobbit.” Always, she is interested in the details of her family’s life: How are the cats, how was school, how do you like our record?
In Curtin’s acting there’s a resonating poignance, the feeling that a very young girl lived within Janis’ persona. Shy, tender, yet becoming defensive in her later years, this is a lonely, troubled woman-child with needs that her adoring crowds could not satisfy. But she’s tenacious beyond belief.
A different aspect of Joplin is drawn out by an offstage interviewer (Michael Santo), who probes into the reasons for her actions, pushing buttons that clearly disturb. Santo contributes a necessary, sometimes sardonic voice to the storytelling. Theodore is triumphant as the Onstage Janis; she has great vocal range, with depths and coloratura highs, touchingly tender at times, raucous at others, with a remarkable likeness to the husky Joplin sound. The play includes some 20 songs, and in each there is a characteristic intensity.
Director Myler shapes the material masterfully, guiding Theodore and Curtin into superb performances, seeking the truths of Joplin’s life and finding dramatic integrity in the telling. Near the end, as the Onstage Janis huddles with Janis and sings of consolation to her, the emotions well up to stir even the hardhearted.
Andrew V. Yelusich’s setting of a bandstand with six screens above it is simple, but the photographs and paintings displayed on the screens during the musical portions are breathtaking in their imaginative contours and colors.