Aviva Jane Carlin is a soothing sort of actress. Her voice and gentility suggest nothing less than a South African Mary Poppins. Like Mary, Ms. Carlin's Jodie wants nothing more than to give us a spoonful of sugar with our medicine, the sugar here being a pleasantly absurd sense of humor and the medicine an exegesis of apartheid. Of course, Mary was an itinerant nanny clad in tight bodice and long skirts, whereas Jodie is an itinerant art-class model clad in ... nothing at all.
The audience had barely ceased its pre-show fidgeting when the lights came up on the middle-aged and completely nude Jodie, whereupon the real fidgeting began. Jodie is accustomed to such nervous twittering. It's a ritual part of the "life drawing" classes she poses for. Modeling is a tedious and exhausting way to earn a living, it seems, the fatigue relieved only by conspiratorial whispering to an imaginary audience.
What great luck for us that Jodie passes her days in such a fashion, for the result is one of the wittiest and most moving solo performances in many months. Even her rotund, gravity-submitting body, about which Jodie is intermittently despairing, contributes happily to the overall effect. After a while her flabby torso and exposed nether regions appeared to be almost ... smiling? (At any rate, her flesh momentarily appeared to suggest the face of an old man who's just been given an ice cream. Go figure.)
Or perhaps that's just self-description. That is, after all, what Jodie has noticed about the students in her art class; they paint themselves. There's Estelle, a beret-wearing waif whose portrait of Jodie is similarly waif-like ("so as not to embarrass me," the model infers). When viewing pictures by the great masters, Jodie's first concern - understandably - is for the models. "Was that person comfortable?" she wonders, "and if they couldn't possibly have been, well, you develop a certain resentment toward the artist." Thus she has a passion for Gauguin, an artist here lauded for his paintings of "women just sitting around in the sunshine chatting to each other."
Ms. Carlin's script takes a decidedly serious turn in its second half, examining, among other things, the phenomenon of artistic alchemy. Staring out at a novice sculpting class, Jodie wonders why two out of three pieces of clay will always remain clay, while the third will slowly begin to live and breathe and become a woman. It is a mystery, of course, as mysterious as the slow transformation of South Africa into a post-apartheid nation, also a kind of alchemy.
The play takes place just after "the miracle of Tuesday," April 26, 1994, the day of South Africa's first free elections. The moving result, Nelson Mandela's presidential victory, occasions a flood of memories about the country's dark past, each told with originality and detail. Images etch themselves into the brain: of a shoeless girl on the first day of school, of a black servant beaten senseless by the police.
The glory of Ms. Carlin's art is to be found in her effortless transitions from personal to political. If apartheid can be abolished, she asks, then why not also prejudices of a lesser order, namely those against body size? "Hello, girls" she says happily to her dimpled thighs, near evening's end. "We're not our bodies," Jodie's mother has told her. "We only live in them." And yet, as Ms. Carlin's wonderful script and performance suggest, we may also soar high above them.
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Copyright 1998 Scott Vogel