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.