Wedged snugly into a corner table this Tuesday at the Cornelia Street Cafe, I watched in amazement as Polly Frost worked magic on her audience. The landmark venue has often showcased strong ubertalented women (it's where The Vagina Monologues premiered), but for sheer stage presence Ms. Frost is in a class by herself. Armed only with memories and a microphone, she held the crowd spellbound for an hour and a half -- a powerful reminder that simplicity can triumph over spectacle.
Just back from California, the setting of her one-woman show "Bad Role Models and What I Learned From Them," the striking statuesque blonde seems like sunshine personified. But it is Frost's ability to combine her uniquely radiant charisma with a superb command of language that distinguishes her as a master storyteller. During the show she guides eager listeners through her adventure-filled girlhood in Altadena (Pasadena's neglected sister village), weaving a history of bygone eras and colorful characters whose tragic flaws and/or questionable judgment wound up indelibly shaping her adult life. The result is a wacky, exhilarating ride down the river of time.
Nostalgia being the paradoxical emotion it is, in "Bad Role Models" Frost asks us to consider that the people we shouldn't emulate effectively become our biggest influences. She recalls the spirited neighbor woman who, prior to being forced into shock therapy, told hilarious stories about urinating in European showers. Her beloved riding instructor, the improbably-named Aloha Robinson, stuck ginger up horses' behinds to keep their tails lively and gave the teenage Frost alcohol before her first equitation competition as a confidence booster. Steve, a fifty-year-old artist too in love with high concepts to accomplish anything himself, christened his young friend "Princess Polina" and encouraged her to wear Dostoevskian longcoats in sweltering Santa Barbara summers. Judged by ordinary standards of success, these folks fall short -- but for Frost they proved the gatekeepers to individuality and the crazy reassurance that comes from following one's bliss.
Frost's witty satire (as seen in her essay collection With One Eye Open) has garnered comparisons to Edith Wharton, but in performance she emits more of a Garrison Keillor vibe. Her Altadena is as perfectly crafted and fully alive as Lake Wobegon -- although there's nothing fictional about Frost's reminiscences -- and her mellifluous voice brings to mind the great radio stars of yore. Like Keillor, Frost invites spectators to think, to laugh, to imagine life's possibilities and endless absurdities. References fly fast and furiously throughout the monologue, from King Vidor to Gene Tierney to Richard Feynman (thank God I'm an old soul!). As we accompany Frost on her wide-ranging journey, our minds grow attentive and alive.
Those familiar with Frost's more sexually provocative work -- her horror-erotica collection Deep Inside, her soft-core porn/sci-fi spoof webseries The Fold -- may be surprised that the passion driving "Bad Role Models" is mainly cerebral and emotional, the deep yearning of idealistic youth to be something, make an impact, live a life worth celebrating (although she does mention fellating a music impresario to finesse a meeting with Pierre Boulez). Her aura is undeniably female, as when she revisits the pain of being rejected by schoolmates as too weird and too tall -- "Never underestimate the demonic power of a girl scorned at her seventh-grade dance" -- but the search for meaning that Frost describes is universal.
Frost says that she switched from publishing to live performance because she prefers forming a tangible connection with her audience. (She expressly forbids any recording of her shows to keep the experience pure.) However, the gifts she leaves us at the night's end are utterly intangible in the way that the best parts of reality must be. We share in her memories, but only for a little while. We bask in the glow of her presence while we have it, then commit stumblingly to our own minds what we can remember of her sagacity after the fact.
Near the end of "Bad Role Models," Frost wonders, "Is life more like a dream, or a movie?" When immersed in the quick-paced cinematic atmosphere Frost creates onstage, I'm inclined to say "movie." But filing into the cool night of New York afterward, winds rippling with promise, there is something incredibly dreamlike about a woman who bares her soul and then slips sweetly away to points unknown. The remaining impression is of an event very like the people Frost has extolled and metaphorically exhumed all evening: so deceptively simple on the surface, so important deep down, and ultimately... so magical.