Sandra Tsing Loh Plays with Fire in The Madwoman in the Volvo

Based on Tsing Loh's memoir about menopause, Berkeley Rep's production has her diction go from maniacal to Laurie Anderson-esque.

At the beginning of The Madwoman in the Volvo, Sandra Tsing Loh recites the opening lines from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a dark forest / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Scholars have yet to confirm that what he meant by living in hell was menopause, but she makes a convincing case for it.

Madwoman is Tsing Loh’s tragicomic effort at understanding her midlife crisis, though what ultimately wins out is her breathless, comic sensibility. Her reflections and memories, sometimes painful, are mined and exposed as useful dramatic fodder. She’s able to shape them so they don’t drag her, or the audience, down.

Madwoman is also an adaptation of Tsing Loh’s own memoir. The play, like the book, is alive with her sense of humor and unflagging energies but she enriches the material by adding two actresses to the cast: Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt. Figuratively speaking they are her backup singers, a supportive Greek chorus. At various points they play her girlfriends, her two daughters, her mother and some of the men in her life. Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” doesn’t play in the background — that’s Earth, Wind & Fire — but you get the idea.

The plot point that ignites the story is a trip to Burning Man. (Note the recurring theme: Something or someone’s about to burst into flames.) With spousal consent, Sandra and a few of her friends ditch their suburban responsibilities for sandstorms, drug experimentation and some conspicuous nudity. Throughout the show, she sells many of her anecdotes with physical comedy. To demonstrate the sight of an overweight naked guy, Tsing Loh squats, makes a round motion over her abdomen indicating an enormous belly, and holds the position low like a sumo wrestler contemplating his next move.

(l to r) Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron in The Madwoman in the Volvo at Berkeley Rep. (Debora Robinson)

Away from her daily life, Sandra realizes she’s in love with her manager of ten years and confesses as much. Up to this point, Tsing Loh had been speaking maniacally, almost at a cartoonish speed. With the full stop of her marriage, she switched dramatic gears and slowed the narrative down to backtrack and tell a story about her brother Eugene and his wife.

Tsing Loh’s verbal pacing suddenly evoked Laurie Anderson and that performance artist’s vocal phrasing. Her pronunciation crisped up as she emphasized phrases with a lilting rise and fall. The lighting changed from hot reds and oranges to cool blues and greens. Eugene’s sad story about the nature of love and monogamy is also a hopeful one. Coupling it with this stylistic change opened up the play. The routine story of a woman’s changing hormones and the end of a marriage gradually began to deepen.

She starts to examine her mother’s life in order to make sense of her midlife crisis, as well as her hot flashes. The playwright remembers her once vibrant mother later withdrawing from family life, rarely leaving her bedroom. It’s not explicitly said that menopause was the culprit behind her depression but that plus some psychological illness clearly went untreated. There was one curious omission from these maternal stories — Tsing Loh never mentions her father. The question hangs in the air: what was he doing to help his wife as she retreated from the world?

Caroline Aaron, who plays her mother, accomplishes a lot with small gestures. A well-placed scarf conjures up the woman and the era she’s living in. Later, in an amusing sketch as a party-goer, Aaron sports a leopard print bikini over a pantsuit. It’s the funniest sight gag of the night. But her knowing, gravelly voice can blast a caustic put-down while simultaneously expressing that character’s sense of ennui or resignation. But both she and Shannon Holt expertly summon up the high spirits of Eddy and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous.

When Sandra arrives at the titular monologue, her breakdown in the Volvo, nothing she’s done or experienced feels all that crazy. There’s a disconnect between the feelings she experienced, the ones that led her to cast off a stable marriage, and how she thinks we’ll respond to them. The artist is looking at herself through a fisheye lens that distorts and exaggerates the importance of everything. Her audience laughs knowingly and applauds in agreement with her rants and wackiness. We’re just as weird or kooky as she is. The main difference is this: we haven’t taken the time or aren’t as talented as Tsing Loh is at translating devastating personal moments into a mirthful evening of uplift and laughter.

The Madwoman in the Volvo, through Jan. 15, at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949 or 

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