An Audience with Meow Meow, Berkeley, Calif.

This astonishing performer's show combines vaudeville, cabaret, circus, and raucous good fun in a not-to-be-missed entertainment.

Written by and starring Meow Meow

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice

Musical supervision by Lance Horne

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, Calif.

Sept. 5-Oct. 19, 2014

A pussycat she’s not, in spite of the name. (And who knows what her real name is?) No, she can purr on occasion and preen and lick her fur, but Meow Meow has claws, and she’s not afraid to show them. As a matter of fact, there’s very little that this astonishing performer is afraid to show and, as she goes from an ersatz Liza Minnelli (think “Cabaret’s” Sally Bowles on speed) to a poignant lost little girl in the space of 90 hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking minutes, we see a lot, if not most of it.

Written by the performer herself and directed by the intrepid, inventive Emma Rice of Kneehigh Theatre (“The Wild Bride,” “Tristan and Yseult”), “An Audience With Meow Meow” at Berkeley Rep can only be described as an entertainment: part cabaret, part circus, part vaudeville act, part homage to chanteuses and divas past — and wholly enjoyable. The first half’s over-the-top costumes are signaled by designer Neil Murray’s sparkly, neon-touched, purple-and-fuchsia curtain before it ever goes up.

Meow Meow, all feathers and spangles, enters on a high platforms, portions of her costume floating to the floor, and proceeds to cavort with her two hunky dance partners (Michael Balderrama and Bob Gaynor) before causing them considerable injury with her klutzy moves and then firing them on the spot. (Make no mistake, Meow Meow is as accomplished a dancer as she is a singer — but only when she wants to be).

Spoofing almost every theatrical convention, from sprawling atop the piano to shlepping out that indispensable trunk of props, the performer gets the audience involved at several junctures (be careful if you’re sitting in the first row) and, before long, the stagehands (one suspects Balderamma and Gaynor in disguise) get into the act as well. It’s hard to describe just how funny it is. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Eventually those stagehands — described as the Dark Princes of the Stage — inform her that the producers are displeased, as she keeps going “off book” and inserting political references. They close down the show, stripping the stage of props and the performer of her costume, including one pair of falsies and at least three pair of stockings, leaving her barefoot, in her slip with only a work light to her name. The orchestra has gone and the audience is advised to follow suit.

Not a good idea. There’s more to come — a lot more, and it gets a little sad and then funny and raucous again, and it’s not to be missed.

Director Rice’s fine hand is constantly present, from a mechanical mouse to too much stage mist during a dream sequence to the confetti that drops on the audience from the ceiling. And the lady with the beautiful voice and killer body is at the center of it all. An exercise in narcissism? Well, that’s show business and this is one heck of a show.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco ,
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”