TheaterMark Rudio

Figuratively Speaking

TheaterMark Rudio
Lorraine Olsen. Photo by Steven Rosen

Perhaps it was my own lack of perspective, influenced by attending a run of recent solo performances I found wanting, but Lorraine Olsen's Figuratively Speaking, now playing at the SF Playhouse before she takes it East for a run in New York next month, took me by surprise in a most pleasing way.

As I walked into the theater, Olsen was already seated onstage in a pose, her well-lit back exposed to the audience as she held a silk robe, black with white polks dots, around the rest of her body. A stool stood next to the door, and placed on the stool was a stack of high-quality sketchbooks, a cup full of finely-sharpened pencils, and two pencil sharpeners. The man at the door instructed me to take one of the sketchbooks if I desired. I turned and looked at the audience- everyone seemed to have a sketchbook on their lap and was busy drawing the performer. I took one, and selected a pencil. The pencils were "Generals"- a sign that someone was serious about this. Generals are real pencils- they're my own personal favorites to use when I draw something, and it has been too long since I've held one in my hand.

I took a seat and opened the book- it was already about 2/3s full of mostly successful sketches from previous audiences of what I now saw before me. There were also sketches of what I presumed to be other audience members, things I couldn't quite figure out, and curiously enough one one page, the words "Depeche Mode" written in large letters slanting perilously to the right. I began to sketch Olsen, feeling the rust in my fingers as  I tried to capture the tilt of her head and worked my way down the page. Joni Mitchell's voice filled the room. People whispered. It felt like a studio.

Suddenly Olsen flung the robe off and spun to face the audience, speaking in full voice as if she had already been speaking for awhile. The next hour flew by as Olsen warmly wove the history of the Bay Area Model's Guild (who knew there was such a thing?), the quality of mercy, wry jokes, sharp observations, an engaging dance to an INXS song, much of her biography, and numerous perfectly held poses into engaging rumination on art, Franz Marc and German expressionism (more than once I thought she would have made a perfect model for Otto Dix) personal choices, and empowerment. Olsen, who is perhaps a woman of a certain age, possesses a strikingly beautiful face which emanates a youthful, confident joie de vivre. That she performs much of the play in the nude isn't as distracting as one might think, but instead becomes a live illustration of the play's themes (she also wrote the show).

Figuratively Speaking is directed by Val Hendrickson, who is the other half of Olsen's production company Theatre Valentine. The sound design by Keith Dunwoody features spot on musical selections by Olsen which enhance the experience. It plays at the SF Playhouse 2nd Stage, 533 Sutter St, Thurs-Sun through September 29.  Tickets can be purchased here (tickets for the New York performances are available here). Highly recommended.