NEW YORK — From its opening moments, it’s clear that “Cirque Jacqueline,” the new one-act, one-woman monodrama about the life of Jackie O, is serving up a much stronger cocktail than the usual blend of nostalgia and iconography that surrounds the fabled fashion plate. To the strains of “The Great Pretender,” the play opens with Jackie Kennedy clad in vintage 1962 gear. Then, apropos of nothing, she begins to disrobe. Off come the gloves, the pumps, the Ungaro black, white and pink plaid suit, the pillbox hat, and lastly, the sunglasses. If the effect of this First Lady striptease is a bit disconcerting for a reverential audience, well, that’s precisely the point.
“There’s this sense that we know all there is to know about Jackie, but I have the opposite opinion,” says Charles Messina, who is directing the play opening tonight at the Bank Street Theater in Manhattan for four performances. Messina earlier made an impression on the New York theater scene with another one-person show about the life — and afterlife — of Freddie Mercury, and brought his iconoclastic approach to stage biography to this production. “My feeling is that Jackie is someone who people have been reluctant to deconstruct; they need to see her as this combination survivor-clothes horse. That’s why we start off with ‘The Great Pretender’: because most people buy into the myth of Jackie without questioning it.”
The main lure of what could well be called “VH1: Behind the Jackie” is actress Andrea Reese, who wrote the play and incarnates Jackie with an often haunting accuracy. For Reese, this is quite literally the role she was born to play. “Ever since I was five years old, people told me I looked like Jackie,” explains Reese. Designed to appeal to Jackie aficionados and novices alike, “Cirque Jacqueline” devotes considerable attention to Jackie’s schoolgirl fantasies and dating life as a debutante. It becomes readily apparent that the formative Jackie was obsessed with two things in particular: France and dogs.
“When she was growing up, Jackie’s parents wanted her to be the ultimate deb, so they made up this myth that she descended from French royalty,” says Reese. When she wasn’t making constant references to French culture, the college-age Jackie would fill the hours of a boring date by chatting endlessly about dogs. “We didn’t just use that in the play for comic effect; that was really Jackie,” says Reese. “In fact, even on good dates she would talk a lot about dogs.”
Jackie’s heartbreak and rage at JFK’s infidelities during the Camelot years are given ample treatment, as are her tribulations under the media glare. “Last week, a reporter helped me with my coat just so that she could look at the label and mention it in Women’s Wear Daily,” Jackie laments in one scene. The play generates some comic sparks detailing Jackie’s hedonistic solace under the aegis of Onassis — and the scandal it caused among her American peers. “Would you believe she sleeps with Aristotle Onassis, that toad?” says Jackie, imitating one of her many critics. “Well, she has to do something. She can’t stay in Bergdorf’s shopping all day.” The narrative concludes with the tender love Jackie shared with the final man in her life: Maurice Tempelsman.
Playing Jackie has wrought some changes in Reese, but the complete Jackie look is not something she’s taken to implementing offstage. “I actually like trendy but comfortable clothes — like, I love H&M,” she confesses. Jackie at H&M? Maybe that’s taking deconstruction a little too far.