Barbie Turns 40, Reinvents Herself

She was called “Barbie Doll” as a kid. But Barbara grew up and became the archetypal all-American golden girl, a regular Sandra Dee, without a clue about life. She gets negatively imprinted by a jerk named Dennis, with whom she maintains an abusive 8-year relationship. Then she falls for Daniel and ends up marrying him in fairy-tale fashion. Barbara becomes a mother, a housewife held captive by the humdrum and trivial. Neurosis sets in, big-time, a mid-life crisis compounded by a cancer diagnosis.

Barbara is Deborah Michael’s stage ego, a comic strip version of herself. She even holds up thought balloons (big white discs with punchy one liners like: “I didn’t know what my potential was, I only knew I’d wasted it.”) and does a bad spoof of Mr Bean in a Malaysian wet market (presented as an amusing video sequence by James Lee).

Ms Michael has an MFA in acting but opted for the “safe” career of expat wife. Then she discovers there’s no real safety in any sort of existential rut, no refuge in comfortable domesticity from the call of the wild, no protection from ontological angst by living within the boundaries of the predictable. The abyss of the great Unknown beckons when she learns she has cancer. She recoils from the edge of despair with a heroic resolve to triumph over disease, death, decay, perennial anxiety about her figure, low self-esteem, and a drinking problem. Laboriously, she weaves a quilt of self-acceptance from memory fragments and hysterical episodes, under the intuitive tutelage of Sue Ingleton, an accomplished dramaturge from Melbourne with a deep involvement in shamanism and the healing power of theatre. Ms Ingleton applies decades of theatre savvy to shaping Barbara out of the clay of Deborah’s dysfunctional life. With the help of lighting operator Eddie Eu and audio engineer Wong Pek Fui, she designs and constructs an evocative, superbly lit, karaoke soundscape in which Barbara can relive her childhood and adolescence. The mystical gamelan that runs like a stream through parts of Ms Michael’s monologue expresses the subtle influence of the exotic East (which puts her in touch with her own heart of darkness after 15 years in Malaysia) and underscores her encounter in Bali with a different order of spirituality.

As an actress, Deborah Michael walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy with elegance and flair. It’s inspiring to witness her solo phoenix act as she resurrects her youthful dream of glory and acclaim (the high point of her youth was playing Cinderella in a school production; and the rest of her life has been a desperate attempt to reclaim the ecstasy of that moment). The frustrated thespian finally frees herself from her fear of not being good enough, of being too fat, or being past her prime, or of shocking the neighbours with her naughty secret fantasies. And in the process she strikes a resounding blow against despair, a gnawing sense of failure, and the unavoidability of unfriendly fates. What unravels before us is the rebirth and transformation of a very beautiful human being on her private journey from bewilderment and benightedness to enlightenment and self-fulfilment. The final scene is almost an epiphany as Barbara sheds the artificiality of her ‘Barbie Doll’ life and reveals her newborn goddesshood against a scintillating cosmic backdrop to the strains of celestial music. One regrets that the story is ended when it really ought to have begun from there.

On opening night Ms Michael’s performance was greeted with hearty applause from a warm and supportive audience of friends and theatre colleagues, all rooting for her success. They laughed uproariously at funny bits and cheered each time she scored a sardonic point. I thought her material was good but overly narcissistic, especially in the first half, and marvelled at the insularity of her growing years in America. I also wondered why she glossed over what might have been the dramatic core of her story, her battle with cancer. The seating in the Actors Studio Box wasn’t kind on my back, and there were a few moments when I felt imposed upon rather than drawn in by Barbara’s spiel. There are many more layers to Ms Michael’s core self than she’s ready to reveal, I thought, and that’s why she began the performance from behind the couch, cautiously peering out at the audience from under those cartoonish flip-up shades.

But what she did reveal was touchingly human, beyond her superficial Americanisms, and the least one could do was rejoice with Deborah Michael and celebrate the fact that she’d finally got her act together and performed it before a paying audience. Now that takes true grit, focused resolve, a giant leap of faith, and a healthy measure of genuine talent. Perhaps Deborah Michael’s message for us is that the only way to overcome one’s fear of ego death is to embrace life with a ferocious passion.

First Published: 25.02.2002 on Kakiseni

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