On Fire

If it wasn't a true story, I wouldn't have believed it. Asking for It was written and performed by stage and screen veteran Joanna Rush, whose real-life acting credits range from the Westside Theater's Daughters with Marisa Tomei to the 1970s NBC movie The Killing Affair, with O.J. Simpson. The character she portrays in this one-woman show at the New York International Fringe Festival has a similar bio but a different name.

The show is about Bernadette O'Connell, an Irish-Catholic woman with a head of unruly red hair to match her fiery personality. Has Rush changed the name to separate herself from a deeply personal tale, or to give herself creative license to take a few liberties? One would hope for the latter, because O'Connell's misfortune with men is almost too bad to be believed.

She arrives in New York in her late teens, naïve and starry-eyed eager for her big break. One fateful day she accepts a late-night ride with a man named Brooklyn Bobby, who promises to help her career. When a young girl dressed provocatively enough to attract the attention of casting agents goes off with a man named Brooklyn Bobby, the night seems destined to end for the worse, and when it does, the police tell her she was "asking for it."

Rush is a bottle of raw emotion just waiting to erupt, but we do not get a sense that she is close to this material until the very end, when we witness an explosion of anger so intense and soul-cleansing that she can scarcely get back into character without clutching a Kleenex. This is the first real sign that the lines are more than just plot for the person reciting them.

In the beginning, the darkest moments of O'Connell's life are masked with comedy. Initially, Rush encourages us to laugh at her character's hardships, though this laughter always feels more designed to lighten the tension than tickle the funny bone.

We watch O'Connell's tumultuous evolution from eager young actress to desperate burlesque dancer, never sure where her winding path will take her next. She is often in the wrong place at the wrong time and a virtual magnet for crime. There are moments in her life that are nothing short of harrowing, and if Rush's life truly overlaps with the character she has created, it is a wonder she is able to tell this story at all.

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