Review: ROSE: YOU ARE WHO YOU EAT at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Decidedly worth devouring if you have an appetite for theatrical savvy and verve.

By: Jun. 10, 2024
Review: ROSE: YOU ARE WHO YOU EAT at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
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Rose: You Are Who You Eat is an irreverent (yet, concurrently, affectionate) look at a performer/cabaret artist’s autobiographical impulse and gender identity questions/affirmations set against the metaphor of cannibalism as a “who gets devoured?”/”feasting/ingestion”  metaphor ---that plays into “double entendres” on family, the role of the mother and the individual evolving in the womb. This extremely quixotic and subversive play by ultra-creative performer and writer John Jarboe celebrates queerness while “riffing -off” on themes of memory, trying to connect to identity and breaking through dissonance into a celebration of the autonomous self.

A presentation of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, this ambitious project is guided by the skillful hands of director MK Tuomanen. This enigmatic experience is set against beautiful and eye-catching projections, video, set design visuals, and a superb group of four musicians playing original compositions that mirror the myriad mood and juxtapositions of this highly original performance piece. Performer and writer John Jarboe creates a characterization that envelops a womb-like ambience that soon transitions into questioning and revelatory awareness.

As this scripted performance piece develops, the presentation becomes more familial, then dissonant, then giddy (and somewhat masturbatory-----Jarboe prances around the stage in underwear and a dangling glove--or a “sock”? ---do not ask!) and, finally, celebratory, and self-affirming. Lighting is variegated to match the moods and house lights go up (shoutout to lighting designer Kate McGee) to make the audience complicit in the proceedings as agile performer Jarboe often literally jumps over the fourth wall to interact with the audience. The results are, I assume, to be whatever the audience wants to make of a provoking project that can be taken on diverse levels from interactive fun to emotional recall to sheer camp and /or parody as allusions are made to the musical Gypsy as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (I could not help recalling Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as the cannibalistic metaphor was threshed out).

The stunning and eclectic musical arrangements and compositions range from ballad-like to rock to an erotic sensual feel –mirroring the stages of the specific (yet, concurrently, fluid) personas that performer and writer Jarboe creates ---such as womb-like attachment to the mother, separation anxiety, dissonance, and autonomy.

The four masterly musicians are Emily Bate on guitar, Yifan Huang on keys, Daniel de Jesús on cello and Mel Regn on drums. The compositions and arrangements of the music are compelling in their originality. Music director Emily Bate, and sound designer Taylor Jedlinksi must be applauded.

An interesting scenic concept was to have the musicians covered with garlands of natural greenery-- and roses are strewn across the stage space (perhaps to represent the twin sister Rose) to enhance the optics. Elegant heavy drapery is contrasted with delicate projection screens and visuals that are replete with photographs and artistic visuals---credit must be given to scenic and video designer Christopher Ash. Costume design by Rebecca Kanach must also be cited.

A seeming satire on familial crimes occurs when, as in a scene from the Dragnet television series or a film-noir crime film,------video projections of exhibit A-Scene of the Crime, Exhibit B—Baby Book , Exhibit C-Family Photos, etc., are shown as writer/performer Jarboe collects the family crimes of nature or nurture which will show the evidence of the crimes in our protagonist’s life.

The influence of the omnipotent Mother –especially in a queer person’s life—is felt in intense identification with the mother as well as role playing with the mother. As I mentioned earlier, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is referred to and –here---we have the ultimate manipulative mother.

However, after all is said and done, on the journey with John Jarboe exploring his memories and trying to break out of his cannibalistic guilt, the audience is told that “We eat each other all the time”, “Not all cannibals are equal”, and that we need “A support group for gender cannibals”. So --where do we go from here?

In my estimation, the aesthetics of the stylish and rich visual design and the instrumental sounds entwined with Jarboes’s highly visceral, stylized, and sheer physicality—are the justification for making one want to devour this highly experimental work. (Unless the opening premise of a twin brother devouring her sister in the womb is truly the compelling reason for this enterprise) but, perhaps, such critical analysis is beside the point in such a sensational orgy of gender feasting.

Rose: You Are Who You Eat is decidedly worth devouring if you have an appetite for theatrical savvy and verve.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

Rose: You Are Who You Eat runs through June 23, 2024 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company located at 641 D Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20004.

Note: In conjunction with the performance, Cultural DC is be hosting The Rose Garden: Green Room, a fully immersive art installation by John Jarboe, in its Mobile Art Gallery. The gallery is located just outside of Woolly at 7th and D Street (outside of Oyamel), as well as into Woolly’s lobby spaces. The space is filled with video, music, and sentimental items to connect the visitors to the essence of John’s consumed twin, Rose.

Photo Credit: John Jarboe in Rose: You Are Who You Eat. Photo by Teresa Castracane.


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