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.