All Mary Tuomanen wants to do is tell us a story about Jean Seberg, but things keep coming up.
HELLO! SADNESS!, written and performed by Tuomanen and directed by Annie Wilson, begins with a looming swell, like out of a 40’s Shakespeare movie, a bit cheesy, and the dimming of the lights. Then an immediate shift of gears: the video screen—the only stage dressing aside from a microphone—runs a sequence of Anna Karina dancing in French New Wave film Vivre Sa Vie. Mary Tuomanen, aping Karina’s pouty lips, doofy twist, and seductive looks, spins around the little stage.
In this clipping, Karina’s dance is a kind of embarrassing seduction act, the dance hall dance with its ideals of feminine smiling put against a bunch of grimacing men. On Tuomanen, alone on stage, dancing for herself, it becomes an act of silly joy.
This clash of light and humorous against tragic is a theme running throughout HELLO! SADNESS! from the name to the final moments. Tuomanen is able to find the silly and the crushing in every moment.
Especially early on, the play comes across as a kind of stand-up act, with Mary “playing herself.” Her own conversational voice comes in frequently, especially earlier on. Down here, she tells us, in the SEI Innovation Studio, we are free from everything, free from expectations, free from societal abuse, free from the concrete rat race, free from other people—“Wow,” she interjects, “this is some heavy solipsistic shit.” She follows that up with “We can clarify our relationship to the divine.”
She has chosen the entertainer, the pal, the funny gal, to lead us into a rat’s nest of trauma. Over time, a dozen different versions of Mary come to the surface: proud, crude, reckless, crushed, witty, wise, devout, heroic, cruel.
Tuomanen’s physical control is so powerful that we barely notice it. She is graceful, floating across the stage, without looking like she’s doing anything special, while seeming just to be. There’s barely a wasted movement in Hello! Sadness! It is this, in part, which helps this massive play seem so simple.
If anyone saw Saint Joan Betrayed two years ago at Fringe, they know that Tuomanen once played Joan. She and Aaron Cromie created a piece, which Cromie directed, a kind of suitcase play with many suitcases and some puppetry. Between then and now, Tuomanen decided that she truthfully could not access Joan, Joan with her divine voices, Joan with her divine mission, with her armor and her armies.
Other impossible characters which come up in this play are Hamlet—whom Tuomanen has played before—and Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. More accessible characters are Jean Seberg, the young American woman who got to play Saint Joan because of a contest her friends registered her for, and Françoise Sagan, who became famous and rich and fucked up at a young age after writing her bestseller Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness). There are also a crippled museum curator, French prostitutes, and a thief / standup comedian.
In any attempt to reach the divine, or the mythical, or the tragic, or the grand, Tuomanen and her audience are crippled by the contemporary sensibility about theater and performance, one that is maybe also distinctly American: that we are here to be amused, and that it all must be enjoyable, chummy, and light—an effect of, among many other things, television’s massive media fist.
Tuomanen’s play is a clamber upwards into problem. She cannot truthfully show Joan in that entertainer’s mode, she knows—she has to work her way up to Joan’s divine voices, find something truthful. And she finds her way there, ironically, through celebrity and entertainment—through Seberg, through standup comedy, through Sagan’s fame and subsequent self-destructive nihilism, and through her own personality. Through these things, she leads an audience through the darkness in herself, and through that darkness and tragedy, brings us to a glimpse of Joan. [Kimmel Center SEI Innovation Studio, 300 S Broad St.] June 11-13, 2015; kimmelcenter.org.