I’m Still Here … Damn It!” is the exclamatory title of the inimitable Sandra Bernhard’s current solo show, but where the hell is “here”? The loud-mouthed, long-limbed performer, a downtown doyenne of the fashionable world she so caustically derides, begins her Broadway show with a riotously funny half-hour of down-to-earth musings on our celebrity-crazed culture. But Bernhard doesn’t stay earthbound for long. By the time the show ends she’s somewhere in orbit, all semblance of comprehensibility and congruity light years behind, hollering out a chunk of funk in a supersized Afro wig and peekabo mini, exhorting the audience to “fight the powers that be.” When you leave the theater , you may be surprised to find yourself on the same planet.
Whether you’re disappointed or relieved at the discovery that the earth is still beneath your feet will depend on your affection for this undeniably unique performer and her digressive postmodern attitude, which mixes a sincere, showbizzy affection for her glamorous subjects — rock stars, supermodels, Allure readers everywhere — with a sneering, implicit disgust for her own (and our) superficial obsessions.
She is that rare thing, a true original, and as such has a fanatical following that revels in her every odd utterance, even as the uninitiated may remain mystified. Bernhard doesn’t shape her material into packaged little riffs that progress logically. She jumps haphazardly from bite-sizequips about modern life (“Caller ID? I’m waiting for caller IQ!”) to elaborate little memoirs about Courtney or Linda or Naomi that find humor in strange corners. (And if you don’t know who Courtney and Linda and Naomi are, forget it.)
She raps a little, recites her own shards of poetry, lights some mood-enhancing candles, chats about her relationships with her house painter and her decorator. The evening is a sort of deconstructed standup act crossed with a poetry slam and a rock concert, performed on a moody set that looks to have been assembled by mixing leftovers from Lincoln Center’s “Twelfth Night” and some higher-end items from Pier 1 Imports.
The most accessible material in this weird whirligig of a performance is packed into the opening minutes, as Bernhard mourns celebrities we’ve lost recently, like Princess Di and Gianni Versace, with a lacerating mock sincerity that’s her trademark style. As she speaks of her sadness at Di’s loss — “But how could I hope to match the eloquence of Steven Seagal on CNN?” — or imagines a Naomi Campbell song in honor of Gianni, co-written by Sting and Elton John, “to benefit fashion victims everywhere,” her singsong delivery adds a further layer of comic underscoring to the sharp material.
And sing songs she does, to boot. An unashamed wannabe rock star, Bernhard sprinkles her monologue with verbal shrines to Ann and Nancy Wilson, Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks (whom she worshipped long before Courtney made it fashionable), and then stakes her own claim as an album-rock diva with blistering performances of Led Zeppelin’s “Dream On” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Her wild, wayward voice isn’t the most beautiful instrument, but, like her exotic looks (she shows off her lithe figure by wearing a see-through sheath over black underwear), it grows strangely compelling as the evening progresses.
The show’s strangest moment came when Bernhard welcomed to the stage a percussionist whom she described as the “Phyllis Diller of Morocco,” who proceeded to tell a joke (one presumes) in her native tongue before settling down to accompany Bernhard on a drum. Why?
Why not? There’s no looking for rational reasoning on planet Sandra. Live in it and love it, or get out … damn it!