At the beginning of “Lady Gaga #ARTBIRTH,” an outrageous pop musical cabaret about an expecting Gaga, Athena Reich, the show’s creator and star, shimmied through the crowd. Accompanied by her main two dancers — a pair of hunks who appeared in diaper-briefs, among other outfits, throughout the night — Reich made a slow loop through the speakeasy’s crowd. “This is our pregnancy. Our birth. Our little monster,” she simpered to the crowd’s hoots.
“Artbirth,” which had a four-night run at San Francisco’s Palace Theater from March 16 to 19, is an imitation act premised on the concept of a pregnant Gaga, under attack from all sides, in her Blackout era: Gaga defending herself from the pundits calling Child Protective Services (before the child is delivered). Gaga stopping the Kardashians from stealing her act. Gaga the entrepreneur, launching her own line of baby clothing, Goo Goo Gaga. And while this all may be Gaga endorsed, it’s more gaga than Gaga.
That’s not to say the show wasn’t a fever dream. Reich, who shines most as a performer when feeding off the crowd’s energy, made her way to the piano for the show’s first number, a riff on “The Edge of Glory.” The song, home to some of Gaga’s best hooks and innuendo, proved no less sultry in Reich’s hands. The fact was made especially clear when she stood on the piano bench, slamming the keys with her ass in the air, belting the doctored lyrics, “I’m on the edge of labor/ And I’m delivering my baby for you,” with an impressive recreation of the motorcycle growl lurking in Gaga’s voice.
“This energy you are giving me will go directly into the birth,” she told the crowd. “So the more energy, the more birth.” Lots of energy, lots of birth.
When not playing up the crowd, Reich bodied the resonances of Gaga’s lower timbers — the roars in “Shallow” (here, the sounds of labor) and the heartache of “Million Reasons,” which cleverly soundtracked the inner monologue of Reich’s reservations about her baby. From “not fashionable” to “cries a lot,” Reich had no difficulty coming up with a million reasons to give up baby monster.
But where Gaga’s thrum worked for Reich, adaptations of tracks off Artpop, which constituted a significant chunk of the show, didn’t yield as easily to Reich’s voice and the ethos of “Artbirth.” If there was a thematic throughline to “Artbirth,” it was Gaga on the defensive, victim to a cruel, opportunistic and tragically unfashionable world, with hints of a statement on feminism, writ large. All of those themes rest on the show’s ability to turn some of Gaga’s most soulful songs ironic, to playfully jab at Gaga’s grandiosity.
Irony, the dominant motif of Artpop, is difficult to make doubly ironic. And while “Artbirth” tried to toy with the same ditzy sincerity that loosely connected the show, the Artpop tracks featured in the show committed to a gangly ironic irony, rather than work with what Gaga had laid out already. The defining trait of Artpop is that Gaga’s “art pop could mean anything”; trying to attach a message to camp makes it more than just anything.
As the show progressed, the spoofs lost their sharp edges. A confused interpretation of “LoveGame” revealed some of the show’s lacking takes on Gaga’s hooks and innuendos — “love game” was reworded as “word game,” failing to realize the song’s intentions; later, in “Just Dance,” Gaga’s early nod to producer RedOne was rehashed as “red cervix,” then folded into the song’s chorus.
At the top of the night, Reich winkingly declared the show “radical performance art that picks up where Andy Warhol left off.” The statement could never be called serious, but it wasn’t entirely sarcastic. Using “radical” self-referentially is like calling yourself brilliant: You may be radical, and brilliant, but it also tells your audience you might not be entirely self-aware. But “Artbirth,” awash in both witty highs and unimaginative lows, was more about where “pop art meets art pop meets art birth.” Self-consciousness was never really on the table.