Sacred is the New Profane
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
July 26, 2008
Cheryl is crazy—or so she's been told. Actually, she's depressed. But she decides to break her 13-year Prozac habit and seek enlightenment. "When you admit to being on a spiritual path," Cheryl says, "it's like you've said to the universe, 'Okay, bring it on!' And shit starts flying at you. 'Think you're so loving? Try loving this—thwack!'" She illustrates with a high judo kick.
The one-woman show Sacred is the New Profane, written and performed by Cheryl Harnest, directed by Jeremy Bloom, is an honest, wacky, funny, slightly long, often painful telling of the struggle to be unique, sensitive, angry, yet still sane, in a society that rewards conformity and medicates difference.
In the cramped StageLeft Studio Theater, a rectangular fish tank, half-filled with water, stands on the black-draped surface of a small black stage. Cheryl closes the open backdrop and steps into the tank barefoot. She wears a knee-length turquoise dress that resembles an evening gown in the front and a straitjacket in the back. She sports a neon-green snorkel.
"I feel the pain of life, and it overwhelms me," she declares, explaining her Prozac. She feels inadequate, or perhaps "I add up on a level I'm just not aware of." From "Vanilla, Texas," daughter of a sex-educator mother and preacher father, Cheryl's been labeled mentally ill, as if someone stamped "DAMAGED" across her forehead. Cheryl is angry that society finds ways to marginalize and discriminate against those who can't or won't fit in.
Cheryl's physical gymnastics, within and without the little aquarium, reflect her story's mental and emotional gymnastics. Her gay "green card husband" Fernando encourages her to quit the pills. Describing the anti-depressants, she practically presses herself into the tank. "Then I fell in love!"—though I wasn't clear if her new beloved is God or a spirit or a person. She drops fizzy tablets into the tank to show her bubbling new enlightenment. "I'm a minister's daughter—I went to church every Sunday...but God never fucked me like that before!" Yet she feels rejected by this new beloved. "This love was so big I had to stretch...and stretch...and stretch!"—and her arms and legs are nearly at 180-degree angles as she balances on one foot.
She meets a shaman "so plugged in she knows the Dalai Lama and Madonna!" She explores spiritual philosophies about God, people, and mirrors—and discovers the trap of "spiritual currency" or one-upmanship. ("Can you see auras?" "I channel Mich-a-el!") Teaching underprivileged kids in the Bronx gives her journey a grounded dimension. ("So you're from Texas. Does that mean you're a racist like George Bush?") She grapples with the pain of loss and the paradoxes of spirituality. ("Stretch that heart! Dissolve that ego!")
Cheryl Harnest is wacky, athletic, bold, and often hilarious. Her statements and questions go to the edge and beyond. Her physical antics make you fear for her safety. Credit goes to Shalewa Mackall for the nervy choreography and Tilly Grimes for the crazy costume. The show sags a little in its last third; Harnest might trim five or ten minutes. If you don't mind being a little scared, Sacred is the New Profane has some challenges for you. As Cheryl says, "We all get called, but only a chosen few take the call."