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Spirit of Jacqueline Kennedy Lives On in One-Woman Play - 2004-05-26

Former U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy died 10 years ago this month, but in the decade since her death, the widow of assassinated President John F. Kennedy has continued to be a figure of fascination. At least three new books have been published on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the past few months. An exhibition of her White House wardrobe and artifacts has been touring museums around the world since 2001. Now, she is the subject of a one-woman stage show, Cirque Jacqueline, playing off-Broadway.

During much of her adult life Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was the best-known, most-written about woman in the world. She was celebrated as an icon of fashion and style, a devoted mother and the stoic young widow of an assassinated president.

She was also reviled as a greedy jetsetter when she married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis in 1968. In later years, her image as a devoted mother and independent woman regained public affection.

Actress Andrea Reese says playing a legend on stage can be intimidating. Writing her one-woman show, Cirque Jacqueline, Ms. Reese looked for the human elements in Mrs. Onassis' eventful life.

?If there is one thing I did not want this play to be, it was a precious little historical portrait of Jackie up on the pedestal as the icon,? she said. ?I wanted to get under her skin and show who she really was.?

Ms. Reese says that people have been remarking on her resemblance to the former first lady since she was a youngster, but when a producer suggested she write a one-woman play on Mrs. Onassis, she hesitated.

?So I went out and got a few books and discovered that she was so much more interesting, honestly, than I realized,? she said. ?I had the notion that many people have, who do not really know about her, that she was a rich socialite. I did not realize how interesting she was. The more I read, the more intrigued I got.?

Ms. Reese says Mrs. Kennedy Onassis' quest for privacy contributed to a lot of misunderstanding about her. In her research, Ms. Reese discovered a woman of great intelligence and humor.

?She often advised Jack,? Ms. Reese said. ?They kept that a little secret. He consulted with her constantly about major issues. Of course, she was extremely well read. Her teacher when she was in elementary school said she was the most inquisitive student they had in 30 years.?

Ms. Reese discovered that Mrs. Onassis' intelligence helped keep her in school despite a non-stop series of pranks, mostly aimed at teachers, as portrayed in this scene from the play.

Good afternoon Miss Stringfellow. It is not at all fair that Ms. Dumb, Ms. Dumbarton, sent me here. I confess that I stapled her coat to the wall, but only because of a horrific injustice that occurred.

?She was quirky. She was a trickster," said Ms. Reese. "Sometimes she would trick the Secret Service by hiding from them and get them into a complete panic and then jump out of a bush or some other place. So she had this wonderful quirky side to her.?

Ms. Reese says she was also surprised to find out the depth and length of Mrs. Onassis's despair after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.

?The other thing I learned is that she was much more traumatized by the assassination than she showed the public, that the trauma really went on for many, many years afterwards,? she said.

So many books have been written about the Kennedy family that Andrea Reese used a color-coding system as she researched the show. She used audio tapes of the former First Lady to copy her breathy, girlish public voice and videos to study her movements. At every performance, make-up artist Lisa Kapler helps duplicate the famous wide-set eyes and dramatic brows.

?I noticed that her eyebrow was a lot higher and also we tweezed Andrea's eyebrow about a quarter of an inch from the inner corner to spread her eyes out, because Jackie had a good two inches between her eyes and Andrea needs another half an inch to achieve the same,? she said.

Ms. Reese calls her one-woman show Cirque Jacqueline, Jacqueline's Circus. It is not, as one might initially think, a reference to all the hoopla that surrounded most of Mrs. Onassis' life. Instead, it refers to young Jackie's response to a difficult childhood, particularly the scandalous divorce of her alcoholic father and highly critical mother.

?I think she learned as a child to use her creativity to create fantasy worlds for herself,? Ms. Reese explained. ?She was extraordinarily creative, imaginative. She really used that to protect herself from what was going on, which actually is why I call the play Cirque Jacqueline, Jackie's Circus, because she said as a child that she wanted to run away and join the circus to get away from everything going on in her family. ?

After every performance, Ms. Reese leaves the stage to chat with the audience. She says she is amazed by how many audience members have anecdotes to share about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.