In Kathy Jensen is Pretty, Jensen’s autobiographical Fringe show largely about her experience as a nude model for art classes, she makes clear that she’s not interested in stripping—just modeling. I take Jensen at her word, but stripping is as stripping does, and the most fundamental problem with Kathy Jensen is Pretty is that Jensen talks about nudity as though it’s beautifully mundane while acting as though it’s provocative and sensational. Jensen repeatedly ducks teasingly behind an onstage changing screen, typically emerging clad just as she was before, and for the final scene emerges in a robe that she (I don’t think I’m giving too much away here) sheds in a climactic flash of nudity that feels not unlike the concluding moments of The Full Monty. At least those guys were honest about using nudity for dramatic impact rather than emotional connection—and although that play is also about learning to love the body you have rather than the body you want, its creators knew better than to try to get away with playing Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” for the big reveal.
I’m not suggesting that Jensen is insincere or deluded about her experience as a model. It’s certainly not my place to call that into question. It is, though, to say that a stage in a theater is very different than a stool in an art room, and Kathy Jensen is Pretty doesn’t successfully bridge that gap. Jensen actually turns out to have little to say about her career as a nude model: it seems to have been without exception, for many years, a positive, affirming experience. That’s great for Jensen personally, but it doesn’t make for great drama. We see several clips of artists with whom Jensen has worked, singing her praises. Again, that’s nice for her, but what’s the point for us in the audience? Jensen says that she’s often asked to talk about her experiences as a model, and I have to believe that most of her interlocutors were hoping for a more interesting answer than the honest one they (and we) ended up getting.
Fleshing the show out (so to speak) are odd interludes in which Jensen addresses other aspects of her experience. Jensen, 50, is originally from St. Paul, and she moved to her current home of Los Angeles as a young adult. She sings Tracy Chapman’s song “Give Me One Reason” (“to stay here,” the chorus continues) while a slide show behind her displays images of Minnesota people and places she presumably cares about, all sporting signs reading “One Reason.” So…is Jensen going to move home? Is she going to stay? Why? How does Aunt Mitzi feel about being “one reason” on a long list that also includes Sweeney’s Saloon and the Kowalski’s seafood cooler, and yet still seems to be collectively losing out to the smoggy glamour of L.A.? It’s a cute premise, but the episode doesn’t really give itself a reason for existing. In another interlude, Jensen plays Christmas music on a keyboard while the screen displays photos of her posing with celebrities, made into faux Christmas cards. Again, cute premise, but what does it add to the show? Is Gene Wilder really as unwell as he looks in that photo, and either way, why do we have to see it?
The best of the interludes—really, the highlight of the whole show—is the energetic disco dance that opens the show, featuring a troupe of women wearing shirts that say pretty. The dancers take the stage as Jensen emerges from the back of the house grinning ear to ear, greeting the crowd as she hops on stage to lead the dance. Beyond the obvious thematic connection, the dance has nothing to do with anything else in the show, and the dancers do not return except to serve as stage hands and, at the end, to take a bow. It’s too bad, because they are indeed pretty—and so, true to the show’s title, is Kathy Jensen. Jensen is also charismatic and has a fine wit, but her talents as a writer and performer are squandered on this surprisingly boring theme.
Photo of Kathy Jenkins courtesy Minnesota Fringe Festival