Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review | If you absorb your twin in the womb, are you a cannibal?


There are two types of theatergoers in this world … and only one is here for a pseudo-musical about cannibalism where the nearly naked lead sings sexily in French with a fake umbilical cord acting as a feather boa around his neck.

John Jarboe is doing his damnedest to get everyone firmly into that category with “Rose: You Are Who You Eat,” his captivating and unhinged autobiographical show that had stops in Philadelphia and New York before landing at Woolly Mammoth just in time for Pride Month. Dubbing the evening “a support group for gender cannibals,” Jarboe spends 75 minutes unpacking questions of gender identity and familial acceptance using a very specific metaphor: If the titular cliché is true, Jarboe is his twin sister, Rose, whom he absorbed in the womb.

Jarboe learns of Rose’s brief existence later in life, when his aunt authoritatively declares that the situation is what made him “how he is” — an offhand, almost clinical explanation for his queerness. Vanishing twin syndrome is, of course, a real thing. Jarboe wonders, “Is this cannibalism?,” which proves a segue into flippant jokes (“Do I have anyone in my teeth?” he casually asks an audience member), and musings on whether cannibalism includes only Hannibal Lecter types or extends to the more mundane digestion of bodily fluids and such through sex and human contact.

Jarboe has a flair for the gustatory, and isn’t afraid to descend into the graphic — the show opens with a video close-up of him going to the town on a chicken wing, and he later imagines in detail the moment he actually “ate” his twin, devouring her hair first “like a thin spaghetti” and later her eyeballs, which he compares to Gushers fruit snacks. Yum.

To aid in telling his tale, which is directed by MK Tuomanen, Jarboe gleefully unearths primary source materials, from his mother’s baby book (which references Rose’s demise in true Midwestern euphemistic style) to a self-flagellating apology letter he wrote his mom as a child after misbehaving. Jarboe has an easy rapport with his audience, which he effectively engages in an emotionally resonant call-and-response-style closing number that helps him receive the kind of closure and acceptance that he’s never really gotten from his mother.

“Rose” makes a stunning visual impact, courtesy of scenic and video designer Christopher Ash and costume designer Rebecca Kanach. Its quartet of four musicians and backup singers, draped in weeds and flowers, become physically part of a meandering, plush, background rose garden — and reds and florals also make their way into Jarboe’s stunning closing-number cabaret dress. He opens the show decked out in a hockey jersey (a nod to his Midwestern childhood) wrapped improbably into a gown, paired with sparkling heels; Jarboe describes his style as drag artist Sasha Velour meets “The Mighty Ducks.”

“Rose” is more of a cabaret show than a full-blown musical; its handful of songs, by Jarboe, Emily Bate, Daniel de Jesús, Pax Ressler and Be Steadwell, have a haunting, lilting appeal, with subtle harmonies and moody lyrics. In one, Jarboe envisions his consumed sister (and by extension, himself) as a woman “wise for her age, young for her name … a little Golden Girl.” Jarboe may still be coming to terms with where Rose ends and John begins, but it’s worth going along for the wild ride, as long as you can stomach stories of casual human flesh consumption.

Rose: You Are What You Eat, through June 23 at Woolly Mammoth in Washington. Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. woollymammoth.net.



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