By Hephzibah Dutt
In Gilda: A Tribute to Gilda Radner, performer, Helena Cosentino presents a tremendously entertaining, ninety-minute, one-woman show. Presented in deep thrust staging at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, Cosentino’s show is a lively testament to her versatility as a performer—she sings, dances, narrates, does impressions—and all this after cleverly crafting a script that simultaneously shares the life and times of comedienne, Gilda Radner’s work and pays homage to her work.
After a song and dance entrance, Cosentino begins changing out of her tap-dance costume. She prances about stage in a base costume of black leotard and knee socks, waving the shoe horn she’s using to put on pair of brown loafers—all the while sharing with the audience her childhood adoration of Gilda. By the end of her introduction, she’s in a brownie outfit and launches into a hilarious rendition of one of Gilda’s beloved characters, Judy Miller of the Judy Miller Show.
This is the pattern Cosentino employs throughout the show: she shares a snippet of Gilda’s life and then sets up and performs fully embodied impressions of Gilda Radner’s most famous (and notorious) characters, vignettes, and songs. Judy Miller, Emily Litella, Rhonda Weiss, Barbara Wawa, and Ruth Breadloaf all make appearances. Between each of them, Costentino reemerges as herself to offer glimpses into the real life Radner with the help of video clips and interview-recordings of Radner’s contemporaries (Jim Henson, Gene Wilder, Barbara Walters, etc). Costentino’s facility at portraying the plethora distinct caricatures is impressive—as is her process. She later shared that she transcribes all the scenes herself, memorizes and performs then verbatim from show recordings of Radner. Performing unedited, uncensored Gilda Radner also means that this show is not for all ages-- I would suggest some strong parental guidance on this one.
Cosentino’s chosen object of homage is undeniably complex -- Radner’s life story is as varied and ultimately tragic as her ouvre was hilarious. This presents a challenge in the script structure: Costentino has the tricky task of interspersing comedy vignettes through the narrative ups and downs of Radner’s personal trials-- family losses, her struggles with bulimia and anorexia, her romance with Gene Wilder, her battle with cancer and the ensuing damage to her career. As the show nears the end, the tragic strain of the Radner- biography (also nearing the end) begins to overpower.
Radner’s personal philosophy may have been to laugh at her fears, however, in the Gilda, the tension between the comedic and tragic become slightly dissonant. While Cosentino manages to re-gather the comic reins to end the show with the unrestrainedly ribald, “Lets Talk Dirty to the Animals,” I found myself longing for a different resolution. Perhaps a future iteration of this script will resolve the dissonance—or address it head on.
photo credit: Rick Clark