Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Bernhard's Back

December 29, 2009

Sandra Bernhard doing Whatever It Takes
Photo: Michael Davis 2009

And you won’t be sorry. Especially if you are a fan of her particular brand of sarcasm, biting social critique, and celebrity-filled cabaret numbers. Sandra Bernhard kicked off her week-long run in New York last Saturday at Joe’s Pub. And as Bernhard herself notes, while it is a more intimate space than the big room at Bally’s in Vegas, Joe’s Pub is almost too small to contain the energy and size of her performance. The show is new material she’s been working on over the last several months, but the content and plan of attack are very familiar. There are songs, including one from her most recent all-music release Whatever It Takes, but most of the show is monologue. Compared to her more recent outings, this is a much more chatty show and Berhard at times seems looser and freewheeling. She often digresses from the bigger set pieces for brief asides on her personal life that were often some of the best bits. Bernhard’s parody of celebrity-life and popular culture is often mixed with songs performed in a cabaret style—often for comic effect.

But not always. And this is the beauty of her work. Even when Bernhard speaks of personal topics – her family, her faith – there are many times where it isn’t clear exactly what she’s joking about, and what she isn’t. The ambiguity in her sarcasm is one of the things that make people either love or hate her work, but it is undeniably her calling card. Even her broadsides at celebrities like Kate Gosselin, Brad Pitt, and (oh-yes) Madonna can be as glamorizing as they are eviscerating. Like the work of her comic offspring, Kathy Griffin, she inserts herself in the middle of this celebrity world. But unlike Griffin, she eschews a populist tone. Griffin presents herself as just one of us, sneaking inside the velvet ropes to breathlessly report the ridiculous truth. Bernhard makes up a fantasy world of fictional events she is a character in, operating by a fractured logic that is the main source of the laughs. The references to events past and present can fly by and it isn’t always easy to keep up with the names, places, and things in her routine. But that is part of the fun as well. Sandra Bernhard is not, and has never been, a lowest-common-denominator kind of entertainer. Her performances at Jos’s Pub this week, including two on New Year’s Eve, are a great reminder of that.


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