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The first thing you’re likely to notice about Melania—yes, that Melania, in Denise Stephenson’s one-woman show Finding Melania—is the smile. At first, it’s just an awkward grimace, a bit too toothy, too wide. But look again and it warps into something monstrous, refracting the inner pain of a tormented mind that seems to desire nothing so desperately as all of us, the audience, smiling back.
This desperation fuels the play, directed by Sarah Calver and now running at the Drake as part of the 2023 Philly Fringe, a dark and desolate dinner party of the mind to which we have all been cordially invited. Don your party hat, everyone, and watch as your host careens about what seems to be a sort of limbo, trapped in a mental void in the wake of her husband’s ouster and trying to make meaning of the grooves in the walls. It’s a compelling and often hilarious search for Melania, even if she is never quite found.
Stephenson structures the evening around audience interactions, which peel back the layers of Melania’s mask to reveal an intense loneliness within. Each such interaction appears an attempt to bridge the chasm between us and Melania, to prove we are all the same as her, and thus, she is not alone. It only results, however, in widening the divide, underscoring the alien quality of one trying to be human. You may be invited to join her for a photo or to eat a canape, and tell her what you think. She may convince you to cry with the rest of the audience, to sob alongside her as she attempts to muster tears in vain (a hysterical turn that echoes the work of the great Jessica Walter on Arrested Development).
Or, like me, you may be asked to dance. Upon her invitation, I joined Melania center stage amid the swell of music, awkwardly shuffling and spinning her around. Our dance continued until, in a sudden fit of passion or paralysis, she threw herself against me and toppled us both to the ground. She glared at me and then to the audience as if to readjust her guise. “That was all him,” she spat, and I shuffled back to my seat.
This Melania needs us for our love, and she detests us for it. But the fact that we continue to clap at her insistence reflects as much on us as it does her. Is our timid applause really so harmless if it provides the impetus for her continued act? Such moments call into question our own complicity, resonant with the political landscape of the last several years. For she is only here because we have chosen to watch her, and only within our rapt gaze is she compelled to prolong her clownish performance.
If the piece occasionally falters, it’s in its repetition of certain episodes, continually emphasizing Melania’s façade without chiseling deeper. A play like this wants for the dissolution of the mask, the moment where her practiced veneer finally cracks, and there is no artifice left between us and her. Though there are glimpses of such unmasking, we never quite reach a full catharsis here, settling instead in a steady tenor of surrealism. It seems as though the show has adopted some of Melania’s vacillation, uncertain how to reveal itself in a final resolution.
Still, through it all, Stephenson maintains her pitch-perfect impression of our former First Lady: twisted smile, staccato Slovenian accent, limbs all akimbo at discomfiting angles. Each physical detail is ever so slightly warped, compounding into a figure that is alternately hilarious and haunting, a figure from which it is hard to look away.
What, When, Where
Finding Melania. Created and performed by Denise Stephenson, directed by Sarah Calver. $20. Through September 17, 2023, at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
The Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
This event does not require proof of vaccination to attend or masks to be worn.
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