'One Woman Show' review — Liz Kingsman smartly skewers, and elevates, the genre
She's wild. She's foul. She's Wildfowl. Actually, she's Liz Kingsman, the British comic playing a hot mess in a one-woman show called Wildfowl nested within an act actually called, well, One Woman Show.
Confused? That's sort of by design. Kingsman's meta-theatrical event cleverly blurs the lines between where her "real" self ends and her character begins as she sends up seemingly every one-woman show trope known to (wo)man. But here's the gist: Kingsman wrote a show called Wildfowl, about an unnamed, quirky, sexual, troubled woman aimlessly navigating her late 20s, and it's getting filmed in the hopes a British producer will turn it into a smash hit TV show.
That setup may sound familiar, and it should — One Woman Show is a thinly veiled spoof on Fleabag, the 2016 vehicle by Phoebe Waller-Bridge that spawned a surge in the "messy woman" genre of black comedy, in which traumatic memories, meaningless sex, and general unlikability take center stage in the name of "relatability." Kingsman doesn't hold back in her critique of the genre: As Dana, the put-together boss within Wildfowl, Kingsman drops the particularly pointed line, "You're not a mess, you just want to be seen as one."
But Kingsman's show is first and foremost a comedy act itself, and it goes in its own zany, original direction. One Woman Show features plenty of tongue-in-cheek jabs at tired tropes ("I'm having a remember," she says as Daniel Carter-Brennan's lighting signals the start of a flashback), but it also includes interpretive dancing and an unexpectedly hilarious subplot about tall drink of water (he's 8' 9", Kingsman states) named Phil, who she first sees on the subway. Phil's subsequent arrival in her office plants the seeds for a whirlwind fling to bloom in the absence of her aloof boyfriend, Jared.
If One Woman Show simply skewered the Fleabag genre for trying too hard to be "edgy," "vulnerable," and "different," it would run the risk of falling into that exact same trap. But Kingsman is too smart for that. She's acutely aware of how closely she's following Fleabag's playbook, down to the striped shirt and overalls that mimic one of Waller-Bridge's onscreen outfits. More significantly, Kingsman's and Waller-Bridge's creations are both brilliant, bitter solo acts whose explosive success propelled them to the international stage.
So Kingsman winkingly embraces that, piling meta layer upon meta layer into the show's 70 minutes. Just as her Wildfowl character stumbles her way through her life and career, Kingsman herself "stumbles" her way through the show's taping, as the seemingly disinterested stage crew repeatedly informs her that the cameras or mic aren't working and, essentially, they just have to get this over with — much to Kingsman's chagrin.
It's clear when Kingsman is performing as her Wildfowl character, but who she's performing as in between — her own self, or else a heightened, characterized version that may as well be its own alter ego — isn't as black-and-white.
Whoever that persona is, she acknowledges that the root target of her satire isn't Fleabag or its successors at all. It's a culture that selectively invests in women, puts them into boxes — likable vs. unlikable, prudish vs. sexual, vulnerable vs. unrelatable, admirable vs. messy — and has made the "messy woman" into the latest box that they can acceptably occupy.
Kingsman admits that her show (again, whether she means Wildfowl or One Woman Show is deliberately vague, as it's likely both) "came from bitterness and envy" at other women's ability to be successful despite their flaws, put-on or not. And that's the line that lands as truly relatable — and discreetly so, even though the moment is likely as carefully constructed as the rest of Kingsman's performance.
But there's undeniably a sincerity there, too. One Woman Show is much more than a spoof — it's a savvy, perfectly executed show that leaves us wondering what an alternative to the current playbook for women's success looks like. I'd say Kingsman's show is a great start, but here's hoping her act doesn't become a trope in itself, but rather inspires people to take a chance on a diverse range of women's stories.
Photo credit: Liz Kingsman in One Woman Show. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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