SELF-IMAGE: “The wounded healer-clown, that’s how I see myself,” Casey says.
Who is Laurel Casey? If you figure her out, let her know. She’d love to learn that too.
Her night club/bar/lounge act is part-entertainment, part-psychodrama, part-postmodern deconstruction of the audience/microphone-holder relationship, fraught with ten-sions. But then, her life is as well. She recently started playing the Side Bar & Grille, on Dorrance Avenue on Wednesdays from 7 to 10 pm.
As far as Laurel is concerned, it’s high praise to say she runs a crass act.
Wearing a black top hat atop a curly blonde wig, a black miniskirt, black feather boa, and net stockings, Mona Lott — primary personality for the evening — pleasantly points out to a guy looking over his shoulder at the bar how rude it is to sit with his back to her. She goes into her first song, “You’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.” The big guy looks a little sheepish, smiles and obliges. But it’s a bar. After a while, when she’s not looking, he returns to resting his elbows.
There were about a dozen people in the room, including staff. With no advertising, word-of-mouth was relied on to get out the news of Casey’s return to Rhode Island, her first gig here in six years. This was one of her first shows at the Side Bar, and while there already were more people than the nearly empty room the week before, word hadn’t gotten around yet that Laurel was back in town. If you want to see busy here, you come at the beginning of the week when the “Meatball Madness!” special packs the place.
She’s backed by a keyboard and stand-up bass, and during an instrumental break in the song, she prances about the room, then settles against a post and not so much pole dances as pole gropes. The seeming spontaneity becomes a 10-second study in intentionally awkward improv.
Thanks to Irish genes, good bone structure, and a facelift, Laurel Casey is pretty as well as 55. She works a counterpoint to that in her act, sometimes tearing off her wig like it’s leapt down from a branch, revealing a clipped, gray Laurie Anderson shag.
Thanks to the predations of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, Laurel has spent the last six years out of local sight, taking care of her in Vermont and Florida, until her mother’s death in May. Rhode Island fans checking into her entertainment website (as opposed to her more serious blog site), in recent weeks came across an ad for her Side Bar act as bewigged lounge singer Mona Lott: “She is Back! She’s Blonde! She’s Dumb!”
“I feel Frank Sinatra’s ghost — or I smell it,” she announces and starts singing “Nice and Easy.” Abruptly, she stops. “Hold it! That’s the stupidest song! What’s it doing in my chart book?” She tears the page out, crumples it up and swings into an extrauptempo “You’re Undecided Now.” Prancing around the room, her poodle/Shih Tzu Howard tagging along, she snatches a piece of chicken off a customer’s plate, telling him: “I don’t get dinner.” In a few minutes, when the audience is unresponsive, she advises: “Things could be worse. You could be out here, competing with meatballs for a living.”
Laurel has always liked to play with pretense, to the point of getting a BA in theater from the University of Vermont and cranking that up to an MFA from Berkeley. For a few years she worked in some first-rate regional theaters — Louisville Rep and the Goodman, in Chicago — and off-Broadway, falling in love with singing only when she got a role there in Nunsense (“I opened my mouth and that was it. I never shut it again”). Before long she was a Manhattan cabaret singer, playing the Russian Tea Room, performing with a canary in a cage, “to signify my stifled soul.” Joe Papp’s Public Theater turned off the lights on her act when, during a performance piece about conservative women channeling fear into repressed sexuality, she placed “an electric appliance” under her dress. The buzzing in the dark and the audience demanding the lights back on added unexpected dimensions. She’s done a straight-ish nightclub act overseas — social commentary but no characters — on a 100-passenger sailing yacht shuttling between Bangkok and Singapore. But over the years — which in-cluded an unfortunate 10-year marriage and a more fortunate daughter, Channing — she’s come to merge performance art with singing.
Oh, that singing, that voice. Her Mona persona comes across like Grizabella, the faded Glamour Cat warbling “Memories,” but her emotional presence and captivating vocal quality are more like a Vermont-bred Edith Piaf. Hurricane Mona is so extreme she’s entertaining. (“Fuck you!” she barks at the two reviewers present, careful to give each of us individual attention.) But sometimes she lets the mask slip — to reveal the same face. So, late in her act this night, after she makes some brief, dark observations about life , it’s easy to not take in that she’s made a passing reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “Hold onto your seats,” she says, right afterward. “Nothing is going to happen.” Later, she quotes Shakespeare (“sans teeth, sans hair”) and sings her adaptation of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” But at the end, she slowly repeats “And tomorrow” again and again and again and again, as though she’ll never stop. It’s a brilliant and chilling way to wake us to the reality of the question, which until then had seemed just a song.