Theater review: 'Sandra Bernhard: I Love Being Me, Don't You?' at REDCAT
Sandra Bernhard’s back in L.A., and she’s feeling the laid-back vibe. She may have sold her house in the Valley, but returning on this “dry old desert day” for her seductively free-form gig at REDCAT, where “Sandra Bernhard: I Love Being Me, Don’t You?” runs through Aug. 21, is like “a homecoming” for this Mick Jagger of yentas, who struts, snarls and snarks before a backup band while soaking up the eternal adoration of her gay fan base.
The memories of when she first lived here in the ‘70s as a skinny young thing from Scottsdale, Ariz., with a bad car come flooding back to her. She recalls the ease with which she used to shoot across Santa Monica Boulevard from West Hollywood to the beach in 25 minutes flat, settle on the sand with her blanket and canteen (bottled water had yet to catch on) and rebuff the advances of a certain Austrian muscle guy with political aspirations.
Well into her 50s, she still looks fabulous — and recognizable. (Clearly, she prefers plastic surgery tune-ups to a complete overhaul.) Dressed in a chicer-than-chic black-and-silver dress, her flaming red hair arrayed like Medusa after a supermodel makeover, she takes command of the stage with the authority of someone who learned early in high school the irresistible power of ironic cool.
Occupying a perch on the fringe of celebrity, she has flirted with being a movie star, a fashion icon, a rock renegade and the best friend of Madonna. A lesbian who broke ground playing a lesbian on the sitcom “Roseanne,” she thrives as a performer in unconstricted circumstances — bantering with David Letterman or headlining one of these tailor-made comedy and music cabarets. Of course, she knows the capriciousness of the spotlight, which is why she’s like an ambivalent moth circling a light fixture as its foolish cousins crash and burn against the scorching bulb.
Does this New York-based diva have any stage fright about performing before the “industry,” which hasn’t always bothered to seek out her uncategorizable gifts? “Nothing’s at stake when you actually have talent,” she says in her delightful blend of arrogance, defiance and wish fulfillment.
Welcome to the alternative universe known as a Sandra Bernhard live performance. To adapt to the environment, you’ll need to throw out your usual criteria for judging a show. For example, don’t bother to ask whether she can really sing. She has musicality to die for, a voice that swoops from the bluesy basement to a top-floor falsetto and a campy soulfulness that can compellingly reinterpret the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” or just go nuts with “Lady Marmalade.”
What exactly is her act? This latest version, borrowing the title and some material from a comedy recording of a 2010 Castro Theatre gig in San Francisco, would rather not be pinned down. A walking-talking blogger before blogs were invented, Bernhard doesn’t tell jokes so much as humorously riff, a style that helped pave the way for the rambling hilarity of Kathy Griffin. Her musical numbers are delivered with gusto, but is she really pulling one over on us? Her off-notes might have you slapping your ear, but it’s hard not to get swept up in her funky groove.
Somewhere inside of Bernhard is a performance artist waiting to bust out. She has a couple of set pieces — a reminiscence of a high school friend who vanished on the night of a Cat Stevens concert and a San Francisco retrospective ingeniously reworking Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” — that show just how mesmerizing she can be.
But performance art is too rarefied for someone completely enthralled by pop cultural absurdity. Bristol Palin as abstinence spokeswoman sets her on a tear. She loves Jennifer Aniston “in concept,” but Lady Gaga (“she makes Madonna look laconic”) gets under her skin with all her crusading.
“The poor gays!” Bernhard mocks. “The poor straights! Enough with the gays. You’re fine.”
Her frustration — with religious freaks in Congress, cosmetic pharmaceuticals that carry terrifying safety information and reality TV stars that are built up by the media as though they’re Meryl Streep — is well-targeted. She has chutzpah to spare, but it’s her articulate intelligence that earns our attention. And as a working mom coping with daily life, she wants us to know that she gets our ordinary struggles, even if most of us never have to contend with Iman asking for yet another favor or Liza Minnelli wanting to smoke in our home.
But it’s this combination of glamour and accessibility that accounts for Bernhard’s enduring appeal. Her show may be a loose grab bag, but the experience is like hanging out with a hip and funny friend who never fails to lift you up with her outrageous freedom.
‘Sandra Bernhard: I Love Being Me, Don't You?' REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A. 8:30 p.m. Fri., Sat., 7 p.m. Sun.; 8:30 p.m. Aug. 17-20; 7 p.m. Aug. 21, $45-$50 (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Photo: Sandra Bernhard. Credit: Steven Gunther