The Architecture of Mark Medoff's Marilee and Baby Lamb; the Assassination of an American Goddess

by Mari Gomez

Introduction

Left to right: Lena Georgas as Lena Pepitone and Erin Sullivan as Marilyn Monroe

Left to right: Lena Georgas as Lena Pepitone and Erin Sullivan as Marilyn Monroe

 In an early scene of the play, Marilee and Baby Lamb: the Assassination of an American Goddess, Marilyn Monroe stands face to face with Lena Pepitone, her newly hired seamstress. The two women look at each other, as if looking in a mirror; Marilyn is undressed and Lena shyly holds Marilyn’s silky robe between them. For this moment, the only thing that separates them is a thin veil, perhaps Marilyn’s fragile facade, perhaps her money, her fame, her beauty, yet at their core these two women are very similar. Marilyn Monroe says to Lena at this point, “We are different, but the same.”


 “To me the play is about the relationship between two women, it’s about friendship in its very best sense.” Said writer and director Mark Medoff.


 Despite the appearance of many historical figures throughout the play, its nucleus is really the love and companionship between Marilyn Monroe and Lena Pepitone. They form a kind of fortress against the power currents surrounding them. For Marilyn, it was the many men in her life that took advantage, the movie studios, for Lena, her father (who smashed her dreams as a child) and to some degree, her husband.
 

The Inception

The play was born from the interviews with Lena Pepitone, conducted by the play’s producer Dennis D’Amico, a close friend and working partner of Medoff. Pepitone was hired as Marilyn Monroe’s seamstress and spent six and half years working close to the actress.  Much of the story in Marilee and Baby Lamb, is based on the testimony that Lena provided to D’Amico over the course of a couple of years, in which she discloses personal stories of their relationship.


And this D’Amico says, “Really dispelled a lot of what we imagine Marilyn was like. She really tries to paint the picture, a real picture, of who Marilyn was. A generous, sweet, lonely individual... She really wasn’t the pill popper people thought she was.”


In fact, Marilyn was much more than that. She was not a wild party girl who went out and got trashed every night of the week. She was not a dumb blonde. She was intelligent and astute with a real desire to do meaningful work. She’d come from difficult circumstances: left as a child to foster care because of a mentally ill mother. A tumultuous relationship with men throughout her life. She suffered bouts of anxiety and depression, which were frequently treated with injections of strong barbiturates to help her sleep.
 
Writer Mark Medoff talks about the one phrase that essentially set off the play for him during his many conversations with the producer Dennis D’Amico.


“Marilyn was an autodidact.”


She was self-made, self-created. She often read and wrote in her diary. She was a self-taught individual, who understood how to get what she wanted, but didn’t understand, perhaps, how powerful her own image would become.

Most people believe they have some idea of who Marilyn Monroe was, yet most of those ideas are based on rumor, hearsay, and her iconic images. All her life Monroe acquiesced into the role of the dumb blonde, of the sexual object and was turned into a modern goddess.
 

The Production


 The stage, designed by Medoff’s longtime friend, Bob Steinberg, consists of a minimal design that brings the soul of Monroe to the forefront.  The central focus consists of Marilyn's bed.  On one side, a table, which serves as a kitchen and typewriter. The other side is a chair, used by several characters as they enter in and out of scenes. The back of the stage is a colorful clothes rack that contains dozens of Marilyn’s outfits. This minimalist approach really strips away the glamour that we might usually associate with Monroe and gives the audience a discreet and private setting.


Actors play multiple roles and the cast is always on stage, witnessing every scene, every conversation.


“The way I’ve structured the play is: as if not only we as an audience, because we are always witnesses to live theater, but so that everybody on stage and all of their various characters are also witnesses all the time.” Says Mark Medoff, “I talk to the cast all the time that we are talking to each other through time and space.”


 The story sees appearances by John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Joe Dimaggio, Arthur Miller, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Paula Strasberg, and the mobster Sam Giancana. We also see a fictionalized amalgamation of Monroe’s psychiatrists converted into one character, Dr. Gelson.


All the characters go through various costume changes onstage. Costume designer Tiffany Figueroa was faced with the challenge of making these details flow seamlessly while evoking the time period. The many changes of Marilyn Monroe throughout the play were orchestrated by Figueroa and Jennifer Caprio.


The entire play seems to be a shape shifting carousel of the collective memory and in the middle of all of this, is the strong bond of Marilyn and her friend Lena.
 

 The Characters

Dr. Gelson, played by David Edwards,  is based on Monroe’s two psychiatrists, of whom she frequented throughout her career.   


“I think he approaches her as a regular client, he wants to help her, he wants to heal her,” says Edwards, “He is, I think and he shows himself to be, very much like the rest of the men in the play. He is enraptured by her ultimately and he crosses that professional line.”


Many of the other men in the play also become enraptured by Monroe and cross that line. Many of these characters are American legends and the actors are tasked with evoking their image and presence, without making them mere impressions. Actor Algernon D’Ammassa plays Bobby Kennedy, JFK, and Frank Sinatra and he discusses the many hours of footage he’s seen of the Kennedys, studying speech patterns and accents. D’Ammassa, like the other actors playing multiple roles, has to shapeshift throughout the play, emerging as one character and then another, dexterously slipping in and out of this time/space.


Marilyn Monroe married two iconic Americans in her life. Her first marriage was to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, who allegedly asked to meet Marilyn Monroe after he saw a photo of her wearing a skimpy baseball outfit. The story was, he thought Marilyn Monroe liked baseball but was soon to find out that was not the case. Monroe was also married to Arthur Miller, the playwright who wrote the epitome of American plays, “Death of a Salesman.” Both of these men are played by Eric Young who's brought Miller’s forthright personality.  


The audience witnesses intimate moments between Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. These moments portray Marilyn as anything but the dumb blonde, someone who is self-aware, sensitive, and clever. Their exchanges are witty and precocious, but also show the side of Marilyn that was loving and affectionate.


Marilyn Monroe is played by Erin Sullivan, who describes the experience of playing the famous actress as very “humbling.”


Sullivan, an experienced performer of the stage, mostly in New York musical theater, talks about how this play is a drastic change from her usual work. Under Medoff’s direction she is allowed far more freedom than in a tightly choreographed piece of musical theater. This has added to her vulnerability on stage, which she says, is fitting of the part.


When asked how she got to the core of a character who we all think we know, she says she sees parallels between Monroe’s circumstances and struggles and those in her own life.


“I am not playing the Marilyn Monroe that we see, that the public knows,” says Sullivan, “It’s a Marilyn that’s being reinvented through Lena’s experience with her. Somebody that no one knew. She had a lot of demons and a lot of things I could relate to.”


Marilyn’s companion, Lena Pepitone, is a young immigrant from Italy. Pepitone, played by Lena Georgas, is at first sight a soft spoken and quiet girl, who in her youth dreamt of being an opera singer.


 “When I think about bringing this performance to life I think about it as an interpretation of Lena and not an imitation.”


Georgas describes her character as someone who played things by the book: got married, had children, until she met Marilyn, who in some ways provided a reflection of herself and then “starting to find herself because this amazing mirror of a woman has been placed before her.” Part of Lena’s struggle is her intense love for Marilyn and what that does to her family.


“There’s an amazing female to female relationship that goes very deep,” says Georgas.


It is this intimacy that strengthens both women into their own form of independence. 


“Lena begins as a young girl who is very fit for society and throughout the course of the play she grows into a self-possessed, extraordinary strong, woman. And then Marilyn has her journey. And those journeys are happening simultaneously and we are each other’s life guards amidst the turmoil that is that change.”
 
 
This brings us back to center: a play about two women who find comfort with each other amidst the chaos and disappointments in their lives. It is through Lena that the play unearths a real version of Marilyn Monroe, using Lena as a counterpoint, a reflection.

 

Marilyn Monroe was turned into a goddess-like figure: her image immortalized as a representation of American beauty and sexuality. She would be one of the first of many tragic and premature deaths in a turbulent decade of American history.


 Marilee and Baby Lamb: the Assassination of an American Goddess takes our expectations and preconceived notions of Marilyn Monroe and injects them with something authentic, corporeal. Only through art can we approach someone like Marilyn Monroe. Yet, there has always been mystery to Monroe’s death and the play mettles with that too. The play suggests that Marilyn’s death was a conspired murder and that several of the men that appear on the stage were the culprits. Men of great influence, both of which, would also fall victim to the chaos of the tumultuous sixties. I discuss this aspect further in Part II.
 

MARILEE AND BABY LAMB
THE ASSASSINATION OF AN AMERICAN GODDESS
at Rio Grande Theatre

OCTOBER 13-18 2015 7:00 PM - 9:30 PM
 
Time: 7:00pm         Doors: 6:30pm     Ages: 18+ without parent or guardian     Price: $17 - $32

GET TICKETS HERE!
 

Correction (10/15/2015): We had previously published the psychiatrist's (character) name as Glenson. The correct name is: Gelson. We previously had the producer of the play as Derrin D'Amico, the correct name is Dennis D'Amico. 


Part II

The Sacrifice of Memory: the Narratives of an American Goddess;

A Conversation with Mark Medoff and Dennis D'Amico

If you spend even half an hour on the internet searching Marilyn Monroe, you come out of the tangled information web with conflicting and opposing ideas about her mysterious death.

The official narrative suggests that Marilyn Monroe’s death was the cause of an accidental suicide. Given the history of government “official narratives,” it is not surprising to find that there is an array of alternative ones that have circulated since her death in 1962.

One of these possible narratives, as seen in Marilee and Baby Lamb, contains very deep and dark implications. Lena Pepitone, who worked for Marilyn Monroe and provided the backbone of the story for the play, upheld this idea; she was certain that Marilyn Monroe had been murdered and that the Kennedy’s were directly involved.

“Lena was Marilyn’s best friend and her best kept secret.” Says producer Dennis D’Amico. According to D’Amico’s extensive interviews with Lena, she managed to stay out of the spotlight and serve as Marilyn’s only true friend and confidant.  Lena claimed that she had been privy to Marilyn’s secretive relationships with the Kennedys and the mobster Sam Giancanna.

“In my research going beyond the Kennedy’s,” D’Amico, who spent seven years on this, admits, “there was a lot of people she was involved with. Marilyn was almost taken advantage of by our government. Because she was such a seductive individual they could use her to meet people and get information.”

Marilyn Monroe was a beloved figure. Her death came as a complete shock and although ruled an accidental suicide, many people have always rejected this.  I get the sense that people want and need to believe that her death was more than an overdose. An overdose is too human and Marilyn Monroe had become more than human; she had become an icon. Even today her image survives as a representation of womanhood and sexuality.  It’s almost as if she formed her own archetype of American beauty and sensuality.  

“There’s no doubt whatever that the powers that be had her murdered because she was a nuisance, a potential nuisance,” says Mark Medoff. “I have no doubt whatever that she could not have possibly committed suicide because the facts that they have given us to substantiate it are ludicrous. She was going to make an announcement the Monday after she died…in order to purge herself, to make herself anew, to change her life. She felt she had to tell the world the truth about herself and her relationships.”

This necessary purge is imperative to the story of the play, but let’s backtrack here. There are various speculations regarding Marilyn Monroe’s death. Let's take a look at at just two. 

One narrative states that Marilyn died at the hands of an obsessive psychiatrist who perpetually made unethical decisions, prescribed large amounts of Nembutal. According to this story, written by biographer Donald Spoto, Dr. Greenson made Marilyn emotionally and physically dependent on him and it was his negligence that eventually killed Monroe. People close to Marilyn often noticed Greenson deliberately caused bouts of depression, rather than alleviating them, in order to keep himself relevant in Marilyn’s life. Spoto claims that there were some very mysterious circumstances involving Greenson and Monroe’s housekeeper Eunice Murray on that final day. He writes that there were inconsistencies in their testimonies and the physical evidence pointed to a badly prescribed enema administered by Eunice Murray under the direction of Dr. Greenson. [1]

A second and more clandestine narrative, which the play Marilee and Baby Lamb subscribes to, points to JFK and Bobby Kennedy. This narrative purports that both Kennedy brothers had continuous affairs with Monroe and they disclosed important, perhaps even classified, information to her. The Kennedy’s used Marilyn as a political pawn. This view suggests the existence of red diaries in which Monroe recorded information she learned about the Kennedy’s dealings. Because of her stature as a celebrity and sexual icon, the Kennedy’s used her in their political game, convincing her to act on their behalf on certain occasions, one specifically involving Fidel Castro. Towards the end of her life,  D’Amico and Medoff suggest, she had threatened to go public about this information and so she had to be silenced. She was, to some degree, sacrificed for the sake of political stability.

The coroner’s report concludes that the cause of death was: “Acute barbiturate poisoning, Ingestion of overdose.” There was no significant evidence of physical struggle, although asphyxiation has been suggested by conspiracy theorists. There was mention however, of “congestion and purplish discoloration of the colon,” which, according to Donald Spoto and his interviews with the coroner, Thomas Naguchi (nicknamed “Coroner to the Stars” because he worked on other high profile cases such as Sharon Tate, Natalie Wood) means that at least one of these drugs could have been ingested through the colon. For, that condition is "consistent with a rectal administration of barbiturates or chloral hydrate." (Spoto, 584) That is, Spoto concurs with Noguchi, the drug was administered via enema. Yet, not everyone agrees to that either. 

 The main uncertainty and perhaps the main intrigue, rests primarily in the forces behind her death, for there is little doubt that the suicide narrative falls short and is highly unlikely. Marilyn Monroe was scheduled to re-marry Joe Dimaggio and had not been observed to be suicidal. [2]

According to the narrative supported by Lena Pepitone and her testimony, the reason Monroe was adamant about going public with this information about the Kennedys was not as a political ploy, but an act of survival, of self-assertion and liberation.

“I don’t know that she was doing it to be mean, she was doing it because in order to cleanse herself she truly had to cleanse herself,” says Medoff.

However, the force of the Marilyn Monroe myth was too great. It had grown to godlike proportions. People came to know Marilyn Monroe through the image she maintained, of a blonde, coquettish, femme fatale, with the power to seduce an entire generation of men.
 

“A woman [Marilyn] who was created by others. I am the creation of other people, I want to recreate myself in my own image of what I ought to be.” Says Mark Medoff, “and they [Lena and Marilyn] helped each other get to that moment. That moment as it happened though, was a moment that affected other people’s lives and those people were more powerful than she.”

That somehow Marilyn managed to keep Lena Pepitone out of the public eye is rather surprising.  Monroe never talked about Lena in public because she wanted to protect her and didn’t want Lena to be harassed by media. The name Lena Pepitone, for example, does not appear anywhere in Spoto’s biography. A fact I found rather odd.

It was true that Marilyn Monroe, by many accounts, was a very lonely person, someone who had come up from nothing, had no real guidance or support. Her mother had a severe mental illness and could not properly care for Monroe, so for her first years little Norma Jean bounced around from home to home, often confronting abusive relationships and mistreatment. Norma Jean first married when she was sixteen, but her husband Jim Dougherty, was called into military service and she was left alone again. During this time she started a career in modeling, in which every photographer she came across recognized the innate allure, the charm, and grace which she possessed. This eventually led the young Norma Jean to the movies. It wouldn’t take long before she realized how powerful she could be behind cameras.

Marilyn Monroe saw sex as a way to simply get what she wanted, but she wanted to surpass the dumb blond stereotype and be taken seriously, but she had created a version of herself that had traversed too deeply into world of the iconic.

Biographer Donald Spoto writes:

Since her teens, Marilyn had long believed she had nothing else to offer but what Grace Goddard, photographers and studios claimed; the mass appeal of her beauty and her body. …She also believed that “Marilyn Monroe, “although at least partly a false pretender, represented a part of her true self. …But there was another aspect of her personality-or more accurately, a real identity behind the persona. Marilyn had often tried to repress and disguise the image with black wigs and dark glasses. She tried to separate herself from “Marilyn Monroe” by reducing “her” to another, a third person-“her”-“Would you like to see me be her?”

(Spoto, pg.550)

“They made too much money with her as a sex symbol and as this air head, “says Dennis D’Amico. “They created this character with her and I think once the power of the movie studios in those days, they didn’t want to risk change. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. And unfortunately she got caught up in that. She was a really good actress and in The Misfits and Bus Stop you could see a little more of what she was capable of.”

According to Spoto’s biography, Marilyn Monroe’s friend Peter Lawford (who was actually John F. Kennedy’s brother in law) remembers Monroe saying to him:

“You know Peter, in a way I’m a very unfortunate woman. All this nonsense about being a legend, all this glamour and publicity. Somehow I’m always a disappointment to people.” (Spoto, 547)

 

Medoff’s play, gives us a version of Marilyn Monroe through Lena’s eyes and provides the audience an insight to Monroe’s deep struggles of identity.

“Beware of becoming what you think you want to be if it means selling yourself to the marketers that will make you that thing. It takes a lot of guts to actually fulfill your dreams...” says Mark Medoff.

Marilyn Monroe was a creation of Marilyn herself, the media, and other people’s fantasies. And, as Medoff points out, the subtitle of the play “The Assassination of an American Goddess” takes on two meanings. One is what happened to Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous sex symbols of the time, the other is an assassination of the self.
 

“The other assassination is, I got to kill “it” as Marilyn refers to herself in the play as “it” or “her.” So she has to assassinate it and “it” is a giant persona.” Says writer and director Mark Medoff. “She is Marilyn Monroe. She was, we could probably say at that time, she was probably the greatest sex symbol or symbol of feminine sensuality, in the male view, in the world, maybe in history.”

http://assets.nydailynews.com/

http://assets.nydailynews.com/

There is a poignant and significant common thread that occurs in two of these narratives, both Donald Spoto’s and Lena Pepitone’s. It is a major component of Medoff’s play: the idea that Marilyn Monroe was a creation and that she had reached the brink. She had tired of being the pawn, being used, of being dependent. She wanted control. According to Spoto, before she died, she had been trying to rid herself of Greenson and Eunice Murray and according to Lena, Marilyn wanted to remove herself from the involvement of the Kennedys and start anew. In this way, both narratives agree: Marilyn was looking to free herself from the shackles that prevented her from living her life and revealing her true self. She wanted to reinvent herself. This new found autonomy and self-reliance however, was seen by some as threatening and dangerous.

By all accounts Monroe possessed something extraordinary, otherworldly. Men that met her were immediately enraptured by her. Marilyn Monroe had transcended all mortal boundaries and had come to exist as a modern goddess in the collective imagination.

The play transcends our, perhaps limited, ideas and expectations of Marilyn Monroe and attempts to make her feel real. 

“The conspiracy angle will no doubt engage and maybe even enrage certain people, who hold our government and the Kennedy’s in esteem,” says Mark Medoff.

Yet, Medoff is not concerned about how this might be received. His focus, he says, is in the rehearsal space and bringing the story to life. He stresses that this angle is only second most interesting thing to him about the play. The most interesting thing, he says, is what happens between Marilyn Monroe and her close friend Lena Pepitone.

So whether you walk out of the theater convinced that the Kennedy’s killed Marilyn Monroe or not, is beyond the point. The idea is that Marilyn Monroe, the persona, has lived at the expense of the human counterpart and through Lena, Marilyn could be reinvented. Through this reinvention the story of two women, their strength, courage, and friendship could be explored.

Despite the lack of consensus behind her death, Marilyn Monroe’s story is similar to many public figures who failed to escape a tragic fate. The persona of Marilyn Monroe had snowballed into something too powerful. This goddess, in American pop culture, is simply a poster girl, a representation of sexuality and beauty.[3]

Many questions have arisen while thinking of this play and its backstories.[4]

One major question is, if Lena was telling this story more than fifty years after it happened, could her memory be faulty? Could she have, over the time span of fifty years, blurred the line between fiction and reality? 

Perhaps, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the play. The line between fiction and reality is complex; it is here that magic occurs. It is the traversing of that line that allows art to explore the vast spectrum of human perception and feeling. For, regardless of the “truth” in terms of history, the play is truthful, to itself, to the story, and to the characters. It is through story, after all, that we attempt to understand human nature. Art operates on a different level and it maintains its integrity and beauty through a language far more immediate and visceral than facts could ever achieve.

I am not naive enough to discredit a claim that the government is capable of committing such a crime. It’s entirely possible. In fact, I would love nothing more than this version of events to be true because it would confirm and validate my distrust for the U.S government and their numerous covert operations throughout history. It would show that America has always been good at keeping secrets. Yet, this particular narrative still raises many questions, but this is only the second most interesting thing to me about the play. For me, it is the reaffirmation that art has the capacity to revive and create truth from possibility. It is those possible worlds that create intrigue, that challenge and square up against ‘official narratives.’

Marilee and Baby Lamb inspires real provocative questions about what we know and what we think we know, and most of the time, we know nothing. Ultimately, however, the play is about the need for self-actualization. It is about friendship and about those that are sacrificed along the way.

MARILEE AND BABY LAMB
THE ASSASSINATION OF AN AMERICAN GODDESS
at Rio Grande Theatre
OCTOBER 13-18, 2015 7:00 PM - 9:30 PM

   Doors: 6:30pm     Ages: 18+ without parent or guardian     Price: $17 - $32
 


REFERENCES

Spoto, Donald. Marilyn Monroe: The Biography. New York, Cooper Square Press Edition. 2001

NOTES

[1] According to Spoto, the housekeeper and Dr. Greenson took hours to call the police after they had found Monroe’s lifeless body.  Eunice Murray  (the housekeeper) was mysteriously doing laundry at 3:00 a.m. when police showed up. Eunice Murray claimed Marilyn’s door was locked and that's why they couldn't get to her quickly (though it was known Marilyn never locked doors). There was discussion that no glass of water was near the bedside table and no pills were found in Monroe’s stomach. So the death had to be a result of either injection or by enema. Spoto comes to conclude it was an enema that Dr. Greenson ordered. IT wasn't oral because there were no pills found in the stomach. He rules out injection because there was no needle mark found and an injection of that amount would have left a mark. The enema was a dose of Nembutal which collided with chloral hydrate, which had been prescribed to Marilyn by another doctor. 

[2] Marilyn Monroe was scheduled to remarry Joe DiMaggio in a couple of days and had been preoccupied with some of the arrangements, had spoken to friends the day of her death on the phone and didn’t seem depressed. She was amidst talks of new upcoming movie roles. In Spoto’s account, she had been trying to ween herself off of Greenson’s influence. The other view claims that Marilyn Monroe had set a press conference for the upcoming Monday. It was speculated that in this press conference she would disclose delicate information pertaining to her involvement with the Kennedys.

[3] . We see this pattern often. A recent example is Amy Winehouse. Her image had become so great, so powerful a creation of the media that it became its own entity. Amy Winehouse could no longer control it. It’s almost as if, in order for legend to survive the human form must perish.

Artists like Madonna have tried to emulate this Marilyn Monroe archetype. Some would argue she achieved it, but Madonna never quite reached the stature of Marilyn Monroe and has now, having lived to old age, become somewhat of a joke. 

[4] Other questions I pondered. Is it possible that David Spoto, who appears to be somewhat of a legitimate biographer, simply missed Monroe’ best kept secret, Lena Pepitone, a woman who worked for Monroe for six and a half years? Or that special interests influenced him to discount the Kennedy narrative, so as to suggest a different one? Spoto spends a considerable amount of time in his biography discussing why an affair with Bobby Kennedy would have been practically impossible and why a Kennedy involvement in the death is simply hyperbolic, and a public obsession with gossip and conspiracy.  If the Kennedy’s were closely involved in Marilyn’s life how did they not know about Lena Pepitone? And if they did and knew Lena was her confidant, would they not have eliminated her as well? Is it possible that Lena simply slipped through the cracks? Why would Lena Pepitone wait so long to tell the "real" story?



Mari Gomez2 Comments