TINY FEATS OF COWARDICE
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 11, 2008
Paradoxically, Tiny Feats of Cowardice, a solo musical written and performed by Susan Bernfield and directed by Daniella Topol, is in and of itself an extraordinary display of bravery—and in that context, let me repeat the words "solo" and "musical." Bernfield, you see, is excessively shy, a person who admits that her "whole sensation" is "anticipation of humiliation," a person for whom asking a cafeteria counter guy for water is an almost insurmountable challenge—and yet, she's up on stage. By herself. Telling stories about her life, and SINGING. In Front of People. Telling us all about everything she's afraid of. Which is...everything.
Really. Just about everything you could think of being afraid of day to day makes an appearance here, and probably, unless you too have great experience in neurosis, a lot of things you've never thought to worry about: Leaving the toaster on and burning down the house. Small planes. Vehicles and transportation, generally speaking. Including Vespas. And tractors. Bungee jumping, skydiving, scuba diving. Slippery bathtubs, second hand smoke. Malaria. Heights. Balconies. Other people. You name it, Susan Bernfield has analyzed it with trepidation and fretted it over it on more than one occasion, and the narrative here is basically a catalog of her life's milestones of fear, from a childhood near-drowning incident to the daily anxiety of waiting up for her husband to get home from work, from social anxiety in junior high school to the perils and terrors of raising children in New York City in the early years of the new millennium.
But if the show were just a list of one woman's fears, it might be good therapy but it wouldn't necessarily be good theatre. And Tiny Feats is really terrific theatre. If you, like me, are a person who's ever stopped before entering the subway trying to remember whether you locked your door or unplugged your coffee pot, you're bound to ruefully recognize some of your own paranoid foibles; if you're one of the lucky few who breezes through life with blithe confidence, then you'll learn a lot about how the rest of us live.
As a writer, Bernfield has a sharp ear for the telling detail—the way a Dorito looks, big Swiss cows with really big Swiss cowbells, the way the Elizabeth Arden pedicure salon looks—and the clear-eyed honesty to turn those powers of observation on herself, then and now. There are a few places where description threatens to overrun story, but for the most part, the richly remembered details turn monologue into a fully fleshed-out scene and makes her storytelling pop. She's both incisive about and generous to her younger and present selves. She's still trying to work out the eternal battle between living in fear and just letting go, right up to the moment in which she stands before us singing about it, and that internal struggle is both funny and touching.
And as a performer, Bernfield is chatty and charming, with a great rapport with the audience; she doesn't have a traditional musical-theatre belt of a singing voice, but she knows how to put emotion into a song. Director Topol has wisely kept both the staging and the performance style simple, focusing on clarity and transparency in the storytelling, and on building that rapport in both the monologues and the musical numbers. And with the songs woven into the middle of monologues (sometimes perhaps a little too woven into the monologues; the alternation of text and music sometimes seems a little arbitrary), the piece sometimes feels like a very rich cabaret act.
The score, by Rachel Peters, is a pleasingly eclectic array of music, ranging from Sondheim-esque numbers with funny rhyme schemes ("All the possibilities / Short in wire / leads to fire / We expire") to jazzy upbeat numbers to torch songs (including my favorite number, "Fragile," a sweet, soft song about the fears of giving your heart to another).
The first of those songs, "Intro or Not to Intro," doubts the whole enterprise: "It seemed like such a great idea / A show about / Everything I'm afraid of / Which is / Everything./ It's clearly not a great idea. / A show is something you / Perform! / For people."
It turns out to be a pretty great idea after all.