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Bridge Street Theatre’s “I Am Barbie” a mid-life crisis at 60

Olivia Sargent as Barbie in I AM BARBIE.
Photo by John Sowle
Bridge Street Theatre
Olivia Sargent as Barbie in I AM BARBIE.

Sometimes being ahead of the curve isn’t an asset unless you act on it. “I Am Barbie,” a satirical comedy with social undertones playing at Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill through Sunday is one such example.

The play has had only one other production and that was in 2011. Bridge Street Theatre discovered it in 2012 and planned to produce it in 2016. But, according to co-founder Steven Paterson in his opening night curtain speech, said they put it on hold because they couldn’t cast it to their satisfaction.

Since then, the iconic doll that was an image for everything plastic in our society is now a symbol for Woke women and men. Barbie, now 60, is at the vanguard of older individuals who wonder about the value of their contributions to society. Think of it as a delayed mid-life crisis.

Ironically, Barbie, who was originally created as an inspirational doll for young females, has recently been reinvented as a person who has lived an unfulfilled life. The values of glamour as an ideal has changed. With real female accomplishments becoming more recognized, the fact she was one of the first female characters to hold hundreds of groundbreaking jobs, including a trip to the moon, today seems less inspirational.

Recently a blockbuster film that generated hundreds of articles about Barbie’s impact on society diminishes the impact of the play written more than 10 years ago. Bridge Street is an edgy theater company that attempts to initiate new conversations through their selections of plays. It still might still happen with “I Am Barbie,” but more likely the timing may diminish the impact of the play.

However, with theater attendance on the decrease, it might be box office gold for those who can’t get enough of Barbie.

Without question, Bridge Street’s intent for producing the play is worthy. While the basic concept of Barbie being a victim rather than a heroine is now the norm, “I Am Barbie” tends to go deeper.

Playwright Walton Beacham wrote the play as a series of monologues, which includes a couple of scenes with multiple characters. In truth, they are not all equal. However, there are a couple of gems, especially those performed by Amanda Ferguson.

She is marvelous as Barbie’s creator Ruth Handler who explains the once controversial reason to create the first female doll with breasts. Handler’s own experience brings an unexpected sensitivity to the history of Barbie. After she developed breast cancer in 1970, she discovered there were no viable non-surgical methods of breast reconstruction.

She formed a company “Nearly Me” that developed liquid silicone prosthetics. The products came in 70 optional sizes and a left or right design. Reasonably priced, they brought hope to many women who grew up playing with full-chested Barbies.

In her monologue, Ferguson finds both the sensitivity of the subject and adds more humor than you might expect. She is also insightful as she portrays racing driver Danica Patrick and her experiences being a superstar in a man’s world.

Most of another dozen or so skits are less interesting and often strained. However, their lack of substance is not the fault of the actors. Each of them give their all trying to create people we care about in a play about toys.

As is normal, Ken gets little respect in Barbie’s female fantasy world. It’s especially odd in this production as actor Ken Kantor is a buff, handsome actor. Yet, in the sterile, nonsexual world of Barbie, all male characters seem depreciated. His portrayal of GI Joe suffers the same fate.

Playing several female roles is Natalie Arneson, who valiantly plays action characters and Britney Spears as well as others who are relegated to minor roles.

Olivia Sargent shines in the lead role. She has a striking figure and is a fine actress. She captures the innocence of her character and at the same time appreciates her physical beauty. She creates a dim Barbie who struggles to understand why, despite fame and an adventurous life, she feels empty and unsatisfied.

It is a truly fortuitous sense of casting, that I hope was intentional by director Rob Maitner. Her larger body-type adds depth and insight to the production.

Sargent does not have the slim silhouette that defines Barbie as a 5’ 9” woman who weighs 110 pounds and has a 39-inch bust. She looks more what was described in the year of her creation, 1959, as “Zaftig” or “curvy”.

Indeed, Sargent more resembles a Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield type – which I think is wonderful. Those sex symbol women were real. Barbie is a doll.

Because of this, at least on a subliminal level, the audience might recognize the plight of real people who suffered in life because they were treated as dolls instead of humans with their own inner life. And that is what the film, the Bridge Street Theatre play, and the 21st century Barbie is really about.

“I Am Barbie” at Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill continues through Sunday, September 10. Tickets and schedule information at bridgestreettheatre.org.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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