Love, Janis

Last night I saw Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Love, Janis at the Herberger Theatre. The show dramatizes the last three-four years of Janis Joplin’s life, her meteoric rise to fame, and her untimely death at 27.

It was an interesting show. The narrative switches back and forth between monologues of Janis’s letters to her parents in Texas/interviews with an unseen interviewer and stage performances of her songs, complete with live rock band. Two actresses take on the role of Janis, sometimes even occupying the stage at the same time—one plays “speaking Janis,” who dramatizes the letters and interviews, and one who primarily sings the songs in a voice uncannily like Joplin’s.

The play opens with a youthful, exuberant Janis writing from her new home in San Francisco, where she has just hooked up with a band as the lead singer. This Janis, “speaking Janis,” is overwhelmed by the potential of living in the city. The actress who played her was perfectly cast—she was small, seemingly dwarfed by the stage, with wild hair she constantly tossed around her in excitement. Singing Janis was taller, seemed older and harsher than her counterpart. From time to time, they would be interviewed onstage together, each one offering a slightly different perspective on Being Janis Joplin. This is one of the things I enjoyed about the show, seeing how “experienced Janis” differed from “idealistic Janis,” although eventually the two personalities did merge and “youthful” Janis became overwhelmed by a sad kind of hubris and disillusionment.

Another enjoyable aspect was that the show didn’t focus just on performance—it gave you glimpses into why Joplin was drawn to blues music, what she thought it could accomplish, and what her goals were as an artist. These sections were almost a kind of metatext that expanded on the performances provided by Singing Janis.

It’s hard to believe that Joplin’s legacy was built on only about three years of work. The show provides a worthy retrospective of the singer’s catalog and a heartwrenching glimpse into her rise and ultimate self-destruction from drugs and alcohol.

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