Bridge Street Theatre’s ‘I Am Barbie’
not of the same mold as film
Aug. 27, 2023
Offering a fresh and adult take on Barbie — the doll, the woman, the legend — Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill is proudly “piggybacking” on the blockbuster success of Greta Gerwig’s film “Barbie” with its new production of the play “I Am Barbie.” Though it debuted in Houston more than a decade ago, the comedic script should still make a relevant contribution to the current dialogue about toys, fashion and feminism. The 90-minute show runs for eight performances from Thursday, Aug. 31, through Sunday, Sept. 10.
Where the movie has lots and lots of Barbies, the play has just one Barbie. “She is the sun and everybody else revolves around her,” director Rob Maitner said. Somehow the doll keeps smiling while bearing a mighty load on her shoulders.
“When you think of Barbie, she’s an inanimate object, but the world has put onto her all of their hopes and dreams and judgments,” he said. “This is a chance for the character to wrestle with others’ expectation, including those of her parents, Ken, her sister and everyone else who owns Barbies. She’s a woman trying to understand how to live in that world and remain positive.”
The play goes to dark places that are only hinted at in the pink and pastel film. “There’s some really off humor and edgy moments in it, something in the vein of John Waters,” Maitner said. “There’s also an aspect of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where people just come in with the best of intentions. So, if you marry John Waters and Pee-wee Herman, you get an absurdist, good-hearted mess.”
Maitner produces a cabaret series called “Sondheim Unplugged” at 54 Below in Manhattan and the folks at Bridge Theater say he got the directing job because of his taste for camp.
“We are setting this in a Barbie Dreamhouse netherworld using lots of projections for place and mood. There will be a lot of clothing racks but we’re trying not to turn it into a fashion show,” Maitner said. “There are fast scene changes and our Barbie will have a base outfit and accessorize the hell out of it like any good Barbie would.” Stage design and lighting are by John Sowle and costumes by Michelle Rogers.
Producer Steven Patterson said that he and Sowle have known the “I Am Barbie” script since 2009 when Sowle was reading submissions for the now defunct StageWorks Hudson. They’d planned on a production at Bridge in 2016 but that was canceled for want of a suitable cast. When the movie was announced, it felt like an ideal opportunity and this time around there was no difficulty casting.
The 23-year-old actress Olivia Sargent takes the title role and leads a four-member cast. “It’s so exciting to portray such an iconic figure in culture. I guess nobody thinks of that until presented with the opportunity, but as soon as I heard about the style and general look of the show, I was on board,” Sargent said.
She and her sister played with Barbies until they were about 10 years old. Later, she put together an impromptu Barbie costume for Halloween and brought along Ken as a paper doll pasted on a popsicle stick. “I’ve got a good history with Barbie and that’s been renewed by all the hype about the film,” Sargent said.
Theater artists will typically avoid viewing a previous interpretation of the work when that’s also their current focus. Maitner, on the other hand, is working with original material and still he put off seeing the film until about a week before rehearsals started.
“It would be silly for me to say I’m not watching that. We’re in a conversation with another piece of art” he said. “I loved it and burst into tears a couple times. It has some lovely messages in it.”
One of the points of departure for the two works is that the film goes into what Maitner calls “Feminism 101” for young people, which was most explicit in the lengthy and heated monologue from the mother character played by America Ferrera.
“This is not judgment – it has to appeal to younger people,” Maitner said. “But this is an adult play and we assume the audience already knows this stuff. That allows us to explore other issues between men and woman and mothers and daughters and sisters and friendships. There’s also a lot of talk of sexuality and a lot of humor comes out through Barbie’s understanding of sexuality and lack thereof.”