Change happens

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday December 21, 2016
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Sandra Tsing Loh, left, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron<br>perform in Loh's autobiographical <i>The Madwoman in the Volvo</i><br> at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Debora Robinson
Sandra Tsing Loh, left, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron
perform in Loh's autobiographical The Madwoman in the Volvo
at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Debora Robinson

Want a slang term for "menstruation?" I got a million of em. (Or at least Google does.) And how about some jargon for "menopause?" Here we go from such crudely colorful descriptors as "ride the cotton pony" and "surf the crimson wave" for the former to the discretion of "change of life" and the clinically depressing "ovarian failure" for the latter. It's all ha-ha when a woman is fertile and hushed tones when that disappears. Sandra Tsing Loh proffers new ways to conceive of this biological inevitability, and how she comes to this revelation is the journey taken by The Madwoman in the Volvo .

The performer, author, essayist, and NPR personality is that madwoman, and the mad tumult in her life corresponded with the menopausal period sending her into her "egg-free, cage-free" years. Loh first documented this crossing in a 2014 book also titled The Madwoman in the Volvo, which carried the subtitle My Year of Raging Hormones. Collaborating with Lisa Peterson, an associate director at Berkeley Rep, they developed the piece at Sundance before debuting it in Southern California earlier this year.

Loh has usually performed as a monologist, but here enlists the aid of two additional performers who play themselves in a meta-theatrical way, as well as both children and grownups who weave in and out of the tale from Loh's childhood into marriage and motherhood and then to marital upheaval, bringing us to the present day. The style of the 90-minute show is part standup, part monologue, part theatrical fragments, and part suggestions of a radio play. It's a quilt with some of the panels forced to fit into the overall pattern, and sags develop toward the final moments, but it can be enjoyable both as a crazy quilt and a cozy comforter that men can wrap themselves up in as well.

In a condensed synopsis, this is Loh's story of reaching her mid-40s, and with the onset of menopause, realizing that her evolutionary function of motherhood is no longer needed. The kind of autopilot that has kept her in a marriage of 20 years that produced two daughters has been extinguished, and an impetuous affair leads to the dissolution of her marriage after a fateful trip to Burning Man. But what promised to be a road to new freedoms is instead a thorny path leading at first to a shabby apartment and lots of regretful questions.

Are we having fun yet? It may sound unlikely, but Madwoman manages to make the most of the funny lines, moments, and the kind of good anecdotes that stem from bad reality. Peterson's unconventional staging on a set with little more than a few tables and chairs gives room for the freeform script to amble where it might, and the audience-friendly Loh gets a mighty comic assist from the two actress-friends she has asked to take part in what is scripted to look at times like an unscripted affair.

Caroline Aaron plays one of the friends, and it's likely you'll recognize her distinctive look and voice as a featured actress favored by Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Nora Ephron, and many other directors. Aaron is a brassy steamroller who can turn baby soft when that's needed. In contrast to Aaron, wispy Shannon Holt plays Loh's fellow gal pal, who gets laughs with an adorably addled personality and facial expressions that need no words to draw chuckles.

With lifespans what they are now, perhaps half the women in the world are at, near, or post menopause, Loh tells us. Reinvention of life's Act II for contemporary women is called for, something Loh radically embraced with mixed results. But still you know the show has to provide a final message of uplift.

What's interesting is that in menopause, Loh says, a woman's hormone levels return to what they were when she was a preteen girl. "Instead of 'the change,'" she says, "it should be called 'the return.'"


The Madwoman in the Volvo will run through Jan. 15. Tickets are $60-$75. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to