Thursday, January 25, 2024


Early in Get On Your Knees, writer-performer Jacqueline Novak casually mentions that she used to write poetry in college. Based on the dense, surprising tangle of allusions and images in the 90-minute monologue that follows, she’s still writing it. In this case, it’s in the form of a one-woman show that’s an exhilaratingly literate example of the form. Neither stand-up comedy nor straight up lecture, Novak stalks the stage with an easy stride talking through a coming-of-age. Her footsteps’ pacing matches her rapid linguistic stylings. Thoughts tumble with studied casualness, barely keeping up with her delivery as if she’s just thinking of these writerly phrases. She looks casual—jeans and t-shirt—but in her grinning, bookish preparation, it’s clear she’s thought carefully about how to phrase these ideas and how best to present them. (A knowing detail comes when she describes not only reading Nabokov as a girl, but wanting to be seen reading Nabokov as a girl.) It’s no wonder this is a captivating monologue on stage, and the movie does well to capture its spirit. (That director Natasha Lyonne cultivates a similar aw-shucks candor in her own on-screen career makes for a simpatico pairing.) The camera tracks and pans as the spotlight roams, barely keeping up as Novak’s mind, and ours, are racing. She packs in literate references and spins elaborate metaphors—stacking quotations and adjectives until her points are vividly clear. It’s a look at an active mind spinning along and inviting us to join the ride. 

And now I see I’ve done a good job avoiding the animating idea of the show, something about which Novak certainly couldn’t be accused. She gets to the point in disarmingly direct, honest inquiry. She’s here to talk about genitals and her youthful explorations thereof, specifically as she learns to relate to the male anatomy. It’s a concept full of symbolic and experiential import, and she’s eager to draw out theory and anecdote. And yet she deploys this subject matter so intelligently and cleverly with good humor and bracing candor. She’s neither careful nor apologetic. Her presentation is so breezily, candidly, smilingly, matter-of-factly open about potentially vulgar material in witty paragraphs written and performed with a total command of her language and its effects. She expresses such simultaneous depth of feeling, lightness of touch, and frankness of spirit that it feels simply free, never grossly edgy for the sake of it. The show is ultimately an argument in celebration of human anatomy and the awkward, difficult, pleasurable things we expect it to achieve—the ways in which it is central and futile, fumbling toward profundity and intimacy and constantly falling short, except for the fleeting, beautiful moments of real connection. In expressing her particular intellectual and physical insights, she gives us a vulnerable, verbose, articulate work that’s carnal and emotional and expressive all at once. It’s sweet and sensitive—with a bit of a bite. It takes familiar ideas and erects new, personal insights, building blunt poetry out of it. There’s no wonder the movie’s triumphant climactic cut to credits is scored with a booming pop flourish that echoes that idea—“Like a Prayer.”

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