Prague Fringe 2019
Proxy explores a ripped-from-the-tabloids tale of mothers, daughters, and Munchausen syndrome through the recollections of three different women. Gypsy Rose, her mother Dee Dee, and an unnamed neighbor are each played with unwavering commitment by Caroline Burns Cooke. The stark black backdrop and subdued lighting put the focus solely on the solo performer to communicate their perspectives.
The one-hour, one-woman show is based around an American mother-daughter duo, Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard, who made tabloid headlines in 2016. Actress Caroline Burns Cooke isn’t the only entertainer captivated by their dark and twisted story, which has also been made into a documentary film (Mommy Dead and Dearest) and a true crime series (The Act) on streaming site Hulu.
This notoriety of the source material acts as a bit of a double-edged sword. A description of the show as “Munchausen, Mayhem and Murder” means the audience knows that some of its biggest twists are coming. However, the show could also do with a little more clarity in guiding those unfamiliar with the story through the facts, timeline, and details of the case. Caroline Burns Cooke gives some clues as to the change in perspective between mother and daughter, such as occasionally adding headwear, but a stronger variance between the voices or mannerisms of the three women, and any visual difference to set the neighbor apart would help the uninformed viewer follow along.
One potential expository tool is already onstage with the actress – a projector and a white sheet hung on the wall. The introductions and descriptions of the actual women with their accompanying photos could benefit from a slower and more deliberate pace. Additional use of the projector could also help mark the passage of time throughout the story, providing visuals of the women and potentially mentioning the age of the characters during the various anecdotes that guide the story. Whether you follow the story or not, Caroline Burns Cooke is undeniably committed to the performance, mixing monologues and physical cues to convey a range of difficult emotions.
One question I was left with as an audience member is: why tell this story? Other than its sensational nature, what did the performer want the audience to feel – sympathy? shock? disgust? I personally felt that the writing spent a majority of its time dramatizing the details of the case, such as the referencing of Disney songs and films, but could have dug more deeply into their meanings or symbolism. When given a glimpse into the inner minds of these women, I wanted to spend more time exploring their thoughts on topics briefly referenced, including the complex topics of paternal relationships, infantilization, and a child’s feelings of indebtedness conflicting with a desire for independence.
Complicated is an understatement for the lives and relationship of this mother-daughter duo. Caroline Burns Cooke is faced with the tricky dilemma of telling a real-life tale filled with complex emotions, based on media summaries of the motivations behind the characters. Audience members familiar with Gypsy and Dee Dee may get more out of the performance, so a quick read of the tabloid headlines before the show could help keep attention on the impressive commitment of the performer to her many roles.