Be Brave, Anna!
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
August 15, 2008
Be Brave, Anna! advertises itself as a 19th century French melodrama loosely based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith—the busty Playboy model who married an oil tycoon 63 years her senior. It refreshingly delivers exactly what you'd expect. Be Brave, Anna! features a lot of flailing ditziness, campy acting, cleavage, and ridiculous humor. Here an inflatable cactus signifies "Texas" and an inflatable palm tree moves us to "Hollywood." All of the action takes place before a thin free-standing curtain which gets spun and opened by two lovely assistants to a soundtrack of live organ music.
Be Brave, Anna! takes chapters from the life of Anna Nicole Smith and laces them into a vaudevillian carnival. I love the way playwright Tara Schuster has taken the material of Smith's life and then really built her own unique thing from it. She runs with the melodrama framework and rewrites the events of Anna's life if they're funnier some other way. The show is hosted by a master of ceremonies named Cato (Andrew Evans) who sets the melodramatic tone, wears a Napoleon-esque jacket over an exaggerated pants bulge, and does magic tricks to blatantly kill time during Anna's costume changes. In the play, Anna's mother Virgie Mae is like a silent-movie villain, who meddles incessantly to foil Anna's good fortune. She's played by Sarah Tolan-Mee, who embraces the show's style with great gusto. Her wickedness comes complete with crouching and cackling when she does something particularly evil. She is to blame for every misstep in Anna's life and perpetrates all tragedies. Anna refers to her son, Daniel Smith, as a "retarded mute" but he speaks eloquently to everyone else—it's only Anna who can't hear him. Anna and "J. Howard Marshall, Billionaire" fall in love because she wants to be taken care of, they both love margaritas, and she can actually hear his asides to the audience. When Hugh Hefner discovers her and makes her a Playboy bunny, an impressive '80s style synchronized dance number steals the show.
There are, however, some rough points which don't quite work. Jessie Renee Hopkins is very funny as Anna but she has an accent that seems to shift regions with every line. This distraction is exacerbated by some oddities in Schuster's script, like her sporadic gothic sprinklings of thees and thous, which sound bizarre in a Texas twang. Also the scene where Anna reacts to her son's death lasts too long, letting the energy drain out of the play. But the general over-the-top craziness of the style encourages the audience to just go with everything and hang on for the next laugh.
The company, M-34, is a bunch of Brown University students and recent grads who call themselves "a fake moustache, a hand grenade, a star cluster and a crosstown bus." They bring their "new nonsense" to this, their New York City theatre-making debut. The bottom line is if you want a silly good time in the best immature and low-budget spirit of FringeNYC, hit the Players Theater and check them out.