The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis portrayed in Jackie is not the composed figure we’ve come to associate with the most iconic of First Ladies. From the very beginning, you understand that this is Jackie O trapped in some sort of purgatory. She has become a wraith free of all societal strictures, a tortured spirit who is bound to speak, snarl, mug, and dance in her determination to discover something reliably true in the torrent of language pouring out of her, language that doesn’t seem to be entirely in her control.
Her words come from the pen of Elfriede Jelinek, native of Austria and winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize, best known for authoring the novel The Piano Teacher (which inspired the 2001 film by Michael Haneke). For all the inner life her Jackie divulges, you wouldn’t say that the work is an attempt to draw a biographical portrait, either. The material only glosses on Jackie’s upbringing and her life after the White House years – formative and important moments that would have surely loomed larger in the flesh-and-blood woman’s consciousness. Jelinek’s Jackie is fixated on the 1960s and the events that made her part of history.
In lavish language full of wordplay and simile (translated with an attentive ear by Gitta Honegger), she relives the grisly trauma of her husband’s assassination; she muses on the ways that clothes both defined her and obscured her; she mourns her miscarried babies; she gives an emotionally complex reading of Marilyn Monroe, the light (blonde) to her darkness (brunette). There is this and more: opinions on Sylvia Plath, cheerleaders, JFK’s sex appeal, the rest of the Kennedy clan... In this sense, you could say the character gives voice to the icon more than the woman, and this is what gives the language such wild license. Perhaps this is the Hell that only exists for those doomed to suffer a public immortality they cannot dictate? Through Jackie’s unburdening Jelinek zealously unpacks the stuff our popular imagination or collective memory has pitched on this ultimately private woman.
Tina Benko is fearless in her portrayal. This undead, not-quite-human character, with her motives unclear, and with so much material to cover, is a challenge to the audience, but Benko manages to connect and to hit the broad range of moods in the text. While a one-actor, no-intermission show admittedly runs a risk of creating a claustrophobic or stagnant air on stage, the staging overcompensates at times, with Jackie accompanying her speech with constant, carefully choreographed gestures and movements; Benko certainly has enough power in just her voice to hold a crowd rapt without need of so much punctuation of gesticulation and placement, particularly in the intimate thrust stage.
Ultimately, director Tea Alagic has transformed this disturbing kaleidoscope of a monologue into an experience that can only be transmitted through the stage. For example, in a startling visual metaphor, Jackie must drag the bodies of her dead (JFK, her miscarried children and Aristotle Onassis rendered as effigies wrapped in duct tape) around with her, while the set, a very real-looking neglected swimming pool, offers wordless commentary through its associations of bygone wealth and leisure. The measured sound and light design act as another presence in this place, touches of music and apparitions that punctuate, and at times control, Jackie’s unfurling. The production is experimental, in the best sense of the word, a testament to Women's Project commitment not only to theater created by women, but to adventurous new work.