If you’ve never performed on stage, it’s hard to understand the dynamics of what happens backstage. Over the course of rehearsals and then tech week and the duration of the performances, casts and companies bond, dynamics emerge, and you inevitably find the one person who’s such a delight off the stage that you risk missing an entrance cue. In the Philadelphia opera community, it seems that person is Maren Montalbano, who’s bringing her interactive Bodice Ripper Project to audiences live over streaming platform Twitch for this year’s Philly Fringe.
What fourth wall?
The show lets Montalbano respond to her audience in real time. The lines between the world of the show and the real word are somewhat blurred—the premise seems to be that Montalbano is backstage between acts, regaling her castmates with lusty historical romance, but early in the performance she breaks the fourth wall and looks to her camera, beginning to read the audience comments coming in. Her greeting to the live audience is of the common “oh, I didn’t see you there” sort often seen in performances where the fourth wall—real or imagined—is broken, but Montalbano is charming enough to pull it off.
From the beginning, there’s one thing we understand about the speaker: she loves a romance novel. But she also makes sure the audience members who are less enthralled by the genre feel welcomed into the performance.
A tricky mix
Despite knowing that Montalbano is an opera singer, I wasn’t expecting music in this performance. Unfortunately, the prerecorded piano-and-vocal interludes aren’t well balanced, and the piano drowns out Montalbano’s words almost completely, first when she is reading from her romance story and later when she is singing. The most successful song in Bodice Ripper is the final one, which she sings a cappella. (That song, by the way, should also come armed with a content warning for a depiction of child sexual assault. Montalbano alludes to the subject matter as a lead-in to the song but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so dark.)
It’s clear that Montalbano is an accomplished singer and performer, but I would have loved to be able to make out the story she was telling.
Mild, medium, or hot?
Although it’s possible to watch The Bodice Ripper Project without participating in the Twitch live chat, it’s much more fun if you do. Throughout the 45 or so minutes of the performance’s duration (it’s listed in the Fringe guide as an hour-long performance, but the show I caught started 10 minutes past the ticketed showtime and ended before the scheduled hour was up), Montalbano engages with her audience, responding to comments and letting them direct the show to a certain extent. At one moment, she asks the audience if they’d rather the “mild,” “medium,” or “hot” versions of her story, apparently with a prerecorded song for each. The consensus when I saw the show was “medium,” and the song featured Montalbano wearing a corset and holding a flogger, but I honestly couldn’t tell you just how “medium” the song was because the lyrics were impossible to make out over the accompanying piano.
Montalbano also creates a “Mad Lib” with the audience, asking for adjectives, household items, and produce to fill in the story that she reads back—it will be different every performance. Our session resulted in the description of someone’s clavicle wrapping around their partner’s uvula and I’m not sure will ever quite purge that image from my head. But that’s the joy of audience-fueled improvisation.
Overall, Montalbano’s show is at its best during these less scripted moments of audience engagement. Perhaps with better sound mixing the songs would have taken center stage, but I didn’t mind the opportunity to hear Montalbano’s storytelling, even absent the music.
Image description: A black-and-white photo of a woman’s torso. She’s wearing a sleeveless, low-cut, V-neck black dress with an applique neckline.
What, When, Where
The Bodice Ripper Project. Written and performed by Maren Montalbano. Directed by Vanessa Ogbuehi. Through October 4, 2020, part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Tickets and more info here.