Courtney Love is a feminist icon. Courtney Love is a bitch. She's a powerful force of raw emotion, or an evil nymph who slept her way to fame. She's a mournful widow thrust in the harsh spotlight of shame and accusation, a frazzled single mother struggling to raise a girl-child in a sexist world that would sooner publicize her flaws than celebrate her victories. She's a mess. She's a shambles. She's quite obviously drunk. She's a poet in a ripped dress, an aging icon of virility, a run-away train that teeters fearlessly off weathered tracks.
Everyone has an opinion about Courtney Love. She is one of those rare creatures over whom the whole world claims ownership, representing many things to many people — whether or not the likeness is true. It's easy to forget that, once upon a time, she was just a girl in the American Northwest with callused fingertips and a dream.
Love will call upon that misted past when she takes the Carnival Studio Theater stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center as Athena, the lead female in Todd Almond's critically acclaimed rock opera Kansas City Choir Boy.
"I grew up in a series of pretty urban towns like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco," she says, "places that weren't quite New York and L.A., and I wanted to get to one of those two capitals of entertainment so that I could 'make it' or get heard. I can relate to [Athena] very much. I didn't grow up like Todd did in a small Nebraska town, but I did grow up in all sorts of erratic places... I wanted to get to both of those places and see what would happen."
Love did eventually "make it." We all know the story of her band Hole, of her ill-fated marriage to mythical rock god Kurt Cobain, her bouts with acting, her solo musical career, and the multitude of tabloid-fueling, overplayed sound bites and video clips that have solidified her place in pop culture forever. Maybe it's because the world thinks it knows her so well that she found the chance to dive headfirst into a fictional character in a small theatrical production so appealing.
"It's a risk, and I like doing risky things," Love says. "It's not like standing in front of a bunch of people in a venue, and they all know — or should know — the lyrics to at least some of your songs. And it's a different demographic than I'm used to seeing. Sometimes fans come, but not often. It's grownups mostly, grownups who like musical theater, and those are not the same people who buy Hole records."
Kansas City Choir Boy recounts the memories of a narrator (Almond), who recalls the long-ago love he and Athena once shared before she ran away to chase her fantasy. It's a tale about dreams so big they scare you into a corner and about dreams too big to fail, even if it means sacrificing the things and people you say you love, and it's all told through movement and song. The show is full of longing and thoughts of what could have been, and critics have found it enchanting.
For Almond, the show's writer and costar, Love was the dream.
"The character needed to be somebody that, the second you encounter them, you just knew they had a sort of larger destiny than the rest of us," he says. "It's vital to the story. You don't get a lot of information with the dialogue, so you need to pick up [that] these two people are in love in this small-town part of the world, but she has a greater calling or desire that is beyond all that. You needed to just pick that up from the actress in this part, and I think Courtney wears that. She shimmers. She walks through the world and just has that beautiful heightened glow."
Like the small-town setting in which it takes place, Kansas City Choir Boy is purposefully quaint. It's performed in small theaters without a proper stage. The audience, numbering in the 80s for its New York debut, sits in a circle around the small cast; Almond and Love are joined only by a chorus of female "muses."
"We're gonna have some pretty intimate moments in both loving and in fighting contexts in the play," Almond says. "It is kind of wild to be screaming and yelling at each other, breaking up, and there's somebody's head at your hip. Somebody is watching this happen, and their head is right there. It feels voyeuristic."
Love knows a thing or two about voyeurism. But this is her chance to control the peering eyes.
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"It's definitely a different experience than standing above people on a stage, playing to them with your full personality on display," she says. "Last year, I toured with Lana Del Rey, and that was like 20,000 to 30,000 [people] a night. It's what I'm used to, but it's also like, it's easier. I strap on my guitar, go out there, deal with all these little girls in flower crowns, and rev them up. It's definitely easier to do a performance like that than it is to do this. As Todd said, when I come in, I'm wearing this beautiful black dress that he made for the play, and it's hitting people in their heads as I'm twirling around. I'm actually hitting people."
Whether or not they're Hole fans, audience members will surely enter the show with their notions of who and what Courtney Love is and stands for. That's not what matters. What matters is that Love and Almond will transport them somewhere far away from Beverly Hills, out of earshot from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, deep inside the United States, somewhere not altogether real but somehow a bit closer to the truth.
"I'm really glad I took the risk on doing it," Love says. "I have absolutely no regrets."
Kansas City Choir Boy
Wednesdays through Sundays from November 30 through December 11 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. The show runs 60 minutes with no intermission and no late seating. Showtimes are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. Ages 18 and up. Tickets cost $85.