LADY GAGA: #ARTBIRTH (2017)
Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga’s nasal growl, stompy dancing and flair for flamboyant visuals have earned her both accolades and eye rolls the world over. Lady Gaga: #ARTBIRTH garners a similarly mixed response.
#ARTBIRTH banks on star and co-writer Athena Reich’s impressive impersonation of the pop icon, which fluctuates between caricature and tribute. In this pseudo-concert, she imagines a pregnant Gaga who decides to stage the ultimate piece of performance art: the onstage birth of a baby co-created through crowd-sourced sperm.
It’s an aptly camp way to lampoon a pop star who will seemingly do anything to hold our attention. In Reich and co-writer Jack Trinco’s script, directed by Sara Schwartz Geller, Gaga milks every opportunity to turn her delivery into a mercilessly staged marketing stunt where no birthing by-product is wasted.
It’s also a vessel to tell Reich’s own story as a single lesbian who decided to conceive on her own. Of course, unlike in #ARTBIRTH, pregnancy doesn’t always go according to plan. Reich finally achieved her own pregnancy through a long process of IVF, and wrote the show to help deal with the personal struggles she experienced along the way.
So while it’s a fantasy send up of Gaga herself, it’s also a surrealist exploration of Reich’s own experience of motherhood, womanhood and the female body. And a critique of modern celebrity. And entertainment capitalism. With backup dancers, vaginal art and a giant inflatable pegasus.
But though heavy with theme and spectacle, #ARTBIRTH is awfully light on story. Beyond the milestones you’d expect from a pregnancy narrative, there’s little trajectory, and the show repeatedly returns to the same set of ideas. Most segments between songs go on too long, and – while they’re often entertaining – rarely shed any light on what the whole thing’s about.
Fortunately, like Gaga, Reich outshines her material. Every time the show’s running on empty, she injects it with enough glittery gasoline to eke out another mile. Reich is a showboat with a great set of pipes that bear an uncanny resemblance to Gaga’s own, and she’s got more than a few aces up her sleeve. Her version of The Edge Of Glory – rechristened here as The Edge Of Labour – has her climbing over every inch of an upright piano while playing it (frequently upside-down). It’s hilarious, impressive and savvy in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere in the show.
The thing is, Reich knows it’s a bit of a mess. Towards the end, she shouts incredulously: “What the fuck did I create?” It’s a good question that’s still lacking an answer.
If #ARTBIRTH could match the promise of its star, it’d be an arrival to truly celebrate.