Eliza Bent’s new play, “Aloha, Aloha, or when I was Queen,” directed by Knud Adams, is a great example of electric and inspiring New York City Theater. As a theater critic, I give Bent the most prophetic benediction possible. The sky is the limit for this playwright. The play is going on from April 4th to April 21st at the Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. You should go see it.
With that said, this article is going to think out loud about some themes and ideas in Bent’s play.
Bent’s play is a three part one-act, which considers, approximately, a precocious childhood, a middle section where she explores her talents, and finally a third section whereupon the playwright accidentally uses her abilities for cruelty and must reconcile this action.
Bent’s starting point is a film she made in middle school concerning the last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani. It’s home theater, starring and written by children, but safe objective distance in the first place means the movie is still easy to watch. That is, Bent wasn’t so seriously in-character in her film when she was a preteen that it’s off-putting for the audience. The jokes Bent made in her film created a distance between herself and the film’s subject of the Hawaiian monarchy.
The artist is indeed graced with extraordinary gifts and talents. The middle section of this play contains a part where the actress ascends the staircase of the theater and explores at least a dozen accents with mimicry. She makes these impressions and impersonations with grace, ease, and with enough realism to evoke sympathy and empathy (as opposed to a laugh at someone else’s expense). This mirroring is similar to some of the play’s scenery, which show Eliza Bent dressing and putting on makeup with ultra-realism. Between the portraits in the scenery and the impersonations, Bent is similar to artist Cindy Sherman, who’s ability to shapeshift makes the shapeshifting itself part of the performance and the conflicts around that performance. This is straight out of the father of mathematical semiotics, Gottlob Frege, and his idea of sense, reference, and referent – that the sense or truth of the matter isn’t really the referent or the reference. Bent’s sheer virtuosity and speed during these impersonations is thrilling and joyful, but this stream of consciousness also rips a weird dopamine buzz in the audience, akin to a really gnarly Eddie van Halen guitar solo.
This show has similar prowess with other dramatic flourishes and stagecraft, certainly helped in part by her director Knud Adams. Her rhythms with comedy, be they one-liners, or deadpan objectivity about her teenage self, or even just puns; she always lands and always hits. Bent saunters and bounds around her set purposefully and sensually, and adds mystery to her show. She always respects the audience and knows, as a great playwright would, when the audience seems to need a joke, a pinch of sadness, or an electric surprise.
After showing her first video, Bent discusses the perils and the idiocies of – CRINGE! – popular culture, especially theater, using minority culture as a symbol in order to talk about minority culture. There’s a few themes here, such as innocence-versus-cynicism, the naïve (obsessive and wondrous) artist versus the sentimental (learned, disciplined, and well-crafted), and culturally insensitive youth to the more inquiring, older artist.
In addition to the utmost respect for racial tensions and cultural appropriation, as well as Bent’s brilliance here about these issues, I connected personally with the more subjective problem of reconciling a personality. I have a hard time navigating some of these conflicts between my past-self and my present-day self. For example, when I was 15, I wrote a song called, “Imaginary Girlfriend”. It was a pun on imaginary friends that kids have, and I thought it was a great song. When I played it for my (real) friends, their reaction wasn’t what I wanted. They didn’t say anything to discourage me, but I was still embarrassed. I buried the song and nobody ever heard it again. When Eliza Bent worked through her problems with her past and present, I felt a sense of liberation. I confess: I’m rooting for her.
This play is clearly only the most recent and best example of what is and what will be an excellent career for Bent. This artist is fun, searching, wise, expressive, original, articulate, and deeply provocative without causing her viewers any trauma. Bravo and cheers to Eliza Bent, and I daresay, encore.