Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Rock the Cradle? Let's Rock the World

by Neil Genzlinger

Summit Conference is a long way from Golda's Balcony, the fairly straightforward biographical treatment of Golda Meir running on Broadway. But it seems downright conventional compared with another play, on West 42nd Street, called "The Ladies." It is a rollicking take on four first ladies who exercised power far more openly than did the Summit Conference mistresses.

The piece, from the inventive pen of Anne Washburn and directed with verve by Anne Kauffman, throws together Perón of Argentina (Maria Striar), Ceausescu of Romania (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao, of China (Nina Hellman) and Mrs. Marcos of the Philippines (Alison Weller). Their interactions are marvelously indescribable, made up of snippets of their actual words, imagined words, chants, semi-songs and tape recordings of the actresses who play the parts, trying to give impromptu capsule biographies of the women.

On top of that Ms. Washburn and Ms. Kauffman have inserted themselves as characters into the play. (Jennifer R. Morris is Ms. Kauffman, Jennifer Dundas is Ms. Washburn.) Their dialogue is apparently drawn from recordings that they made as they shaped the piece.

The resulting stir-fry, presented by Dixon Place at Chashama through Sunday, can't be followed in any logical way, but it's brashly entertaining. And it's full of moments of quirky insight. A riff near the end by Ms. Morris about why she yearns to be powerful is simultaneously ridiculous and mesmerizing. Just as riveting is a monologue by the Perón character about why those who rise to great heights so often come to bad ends. Power, she says, makes them dizzy and clouds their judgment, like deep-sea divers who lose perspective and cast off the weights keeping them submerged.

"Their bodies rush upwards through the water too fast, and their brains are crushed, and when they arrive on the surface their bones are smashed, and they float on the surface like a mangled, limp thing," she says. "Like the vomit of whales, which lies on top of the waves and is called ambergris and is an extremely expensive ingredient in the best perfume from Paris. That is what it is like at the heights; what is most rare, most costly and sought after, is really just vomit."

In The Ladies Nora of A Doll's House turns up briefly, her declaration of independence sounding positively quaint juxtaposed against the words of these female giants. Ibsen's rudimentary cry for empowerment now rings naïve because underlying The Ladies and Summit Conference, both well-acted, is our knowledge of how four of these six powerful lives ended: violently, in executions or suicides. Watch out, Nora; it's not easy being queen.


Tuesday, February 17, 2004

by Jena Tesse Fox

Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of a famous political leader who used her position to better her country, once said that great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, and simple minds talk about people. Playwright Anne Washburn and director Anne Kauffman have, whether intentionally or not, taken this statement and transformed it for the stage, using the stories of four dictators' wives to symbolize the lust for power, and its (perhaps inevitable) abuse. Ideas, events, and people mix together into what may be one of the most thought-provoking plays of the season.

Avant-garde from the get go, The Ladies circles around Washburn and Kauffman themselves (played by another pair of same-named actresses, Jennifer Dundas and Jennifer R. Morris), as they struggle to not only understand the complex lives of Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceauºescu, and Jiang Qing (the wife of Mao Tse Tung), but to understand why they craved power, and why the ladies abused their power once they attained it. The scenes with the two Annes are taken from actual recordings of their conversations as they created the play, and the rapid-fire overlapping dialogue flows quickly and naturally from the two Jennifers. In contrast, the scenes with the four wives have a supernatural, poetic quality that nicely captures the symbolic nature of the characters. The ladies (particularly Alison Weller's wide-eyed Imelda Marcos) sing ironic torch songs (penned by Washburn herself) and act out symbolic (and occasionally real) moments in each woman's life. (As Washburn has Madame Mao say, “My diseases are actual, not my past.”)

There are many gems in Washburn's script, but there is also extraneous material that could easily be cut for the betterment of the play. For example, the Annes discuss Madame Mao's college performance as Nora in A Doll's House (which nicely parallels Jiang Qing's own quest for power and independence), and repeatedly come back to perform the final door-slamming scene. The repetition does not help to expand upon the theme, and feels a bit like beating a dead horse. Another scene in which the actors break character and discuss the play-within-a-play-within-a-play (didn't I say this is avant-garde?) they are performing also detracts from the play's main purpose.

But there is certainly more that works in this production than doesn't. Sarah Beers' costumes (identical suits of differing colors- some evoking various national flags) work well on Alexander Dodge's stark but effective set, complete with colored Andy Warhol-esque portraits of each first lady. Anne Kauffman's direction is also very admirable, moving from surreal to natural effortlessly. And great praise must be heaped upon all of the actresses- none of whom looks remotely like the person she is playing. Rather than being distracting, the visual discrepancies help ease us into the poetic and surreal world of the ladies. Jennifer Dundas and Jennifer R. Morris beautifully capture the hyperactivity of the creators, and Morris' closing monologue in which she describes her own dreams of power is particularly chilling. Nina Hellman, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maria Striar, and Allison Weller are all very effective as the first ladies and other people in the women's lives. Particular praise goes to Bernstine, who plays a Chinese aristocrat, an Argentine peasant, and Elena Ceauçescu with equal skill.

One other compliment must be given for Kauffman's staging: by putting the audience on either side of the stage, and therefore having us see most scenes in profile, she silently points out the two sides to every issue, and how most people only get see one half of the truth. For these larger-than-life women who symbolize ambition and power itself, half the truth is not enough.