Mary Tuomanen’s ‘Hello! Sadness!’

A one-woman show doesn’t have to be about only one woman

What do Jean Seberg, Joan of Arc, Françoise Sagan, and the Black Panthers have to do with a Philadelphia-based theater artist — aside from, perhaps, for the women, a gamine haircut and a tendency to speak French, with or without a credible accent?

Romping with her imaginary friends: Mary Tuomanen.

Mary Tuomanen brings them, and others, to life in her one-woman show. Wearing a raincoat and doing a kind of twist, Tuomanen is mesmerizing as she leads us on a romp with icons from the ’50s and ’60s, her imagined friends and companions, as she explores what it might have been like to know them.

Set against a projected field of poppies, she seduces us first with a promise of safety from the “concrete pissing-contest of the world” outside the theater. (The poppies are perhaps a reference to The Wizard of Oz as well as the drugs implicated in Seberg’s death and Sagan’s life.) But that’s not quite enough for her — she can’t shut out the world, and so while she dashes around the stage and the theater space chasing an imaginary thief, she also writhes on the floor in distress, far too aware of what is going on in the world outside, the issues of racial oppression and gender discrimination that are never far from her consciousness.   

She visits the Musée Jeanne-d'Arc in Rouen with Seberg and is upset to see a decapitated statue of the Maid of Orleans. Imagining that she could have stopped the thief who stole the head, she dashes madly around the theater until she recaptures it. She goes on a wild ride with Sagan in one of her fast cars and barely survives. She tells bad jokes about a baby in the microwave and does unmentionable things with that invisible wax head.

It becomes personal for a moment when she reveals the Hamlet costume beneath her coat — Tuomanen played the role in Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's 2011 production, the first woman to do so in Philadelphia in 150 years. The roles she usually plays, she reminds us, were written by “dead white men.”

Speaking in her own voice

This performance, a chance to speak in her own voice, is the second production to grow out of a 2013 Dael Orlandersmith Solo Performance Residency at the Kimmel Center, the previous one being Deb Margolin’s 8 Stops, which debuted last year. The title Hello! Sadness! is taken from Sagan’s novel, Bonjour Tristesse (minus the exclamation points).

Throughout it all, Tuomanen is compelling if not totally coherent, but she offers a distinctive voice as a solo performer. Hello! Sadness! shows us that one doesn’t always have to look inward for pain and angst; the world offers us enough of that every day. But we do have choices about how we react.

She refers to Fred Hampton, who said, “Some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity.” Perhaps the show is her way of putting out fires with water. But most of all, she says, she, like the characters with whom she interacts, “doesn’t want to die dismissible, disposable.”

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