Jo Carol Pierce’s Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
This revival of Jo Carol Pierce’s one-woman show from the Eighties pays loving tribute to the author without really coming into its own
Reviewed by Trey Gutierrez, Fri., March 20, 2020
Fact: Talents like Jo Carol Pierce don't come around as often as they should. With gritty, irreverent songwriting and a big-as-Texas personality – all delivered with her trademark Lubbock drawl – the musician/playwright effortlessly stole Austinites' hearts in the late Eighties. Though she's now effectively retired from performing, it's impossible not to see the social worker-turned-music star's crassly affable, "take me as I am" ideology embodied – either in spirit or directly – by contemporary local musicians like Jaimee Harris or Whitney Rose, as well as in such new works as comedian Laura de la Fuente's landmark queer-country cabaret, Liz Behan: One Woman at Dusk.
Pierce was once dubbed the "most underrated Texas artist of her generation," and her body of work is best encapsulated by her semiautobiographical one-woman show (later turned album) Bad Girls Upset by the Truth. A frank, endearing meditation on youth, sex, marriage, and religion, the script presents a wealth of material for any performer brave enough to fill Pierce's boots – a fact that actor Lauren Meckel and director Marea Colombo no doubt considered when they teamed up to stage a Bad Girls revival. Earlier this month, following runs at both the Dunedin and Edinburgh Fringe festivals, Meckel and Colombo brought the work back to its Texas roots for three planned Austin performances – the first at Hyde Park Theatre – with Jo Carol herself in attendance.
A likable and energetic performer, Meckel lays out an enthusiastic homage to a Lone Star legend but also struggles to familiarize audiences with the character of Jo, who's supposedly lived through and is impacted by the outrageous stories shared onstage. As a script, Bad Girls is verbose as all get out – it takes its time painting a portrait of an individual deeply in touch with herself, even when that self-awareness is contradicted by Jo's own actions. Rather than take time with such emotionally complex dialogue, Meckel seemed to let the script's inherent humor carry her through the lion's share of this performance. As a result, this revival often came across as meticulously rehearsed with little breathing room.
What's more, although Meckel switched between physicalities and facial expressions well, distinct characters like the outlandish Virgin Mary and the perplexed, end-of-her-rope Jo shared the same energy, while male characters often felt more or less reduced to the same humorous "dumb guy" voice.
Fittingly, where Meckel most came into her own was in the show's numerous musical segments. Her honest crooning and stage presence elevated numbers like the opener, "You Bother Me," and the crass showstopper "Does God Have Us by the Twat or What?" creating a comfortable, house concert atmosphere that one wished was carried through the rest of the show.
To their credit, Colombo and Meckel's partnership proved effective in how purposefully and seamlessly Meckel moved from one dramatic beat to the next. Even if this revival glossed over some of the script's more humorous moments, this Bad Girls was still a clean, entertainingly paced hour.
Though in the end I didn't feel as if I really spent an evening with the outrageous personality found in Pierce's writing, Meckel clearly performed with a great deal of respect for the original artist and, in that regard, did a solid job of communicating what makes Bad Girls such a timeless work. Ultimately, in an arts scene ripe with fresh and engaging solo works – a scene that Jo Carol herself arguably helped define – this revival of Bad Girls comfortably defined itself as a loving tribute to an artistic triumph, without ever really coming into its own.
The remaining two performances of Bad Girls Upset by the Truth have been postponed.
Bad Girls Upset by the TruthHyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd