Thursday, January 23, 2003


Theater Preview
January 23 - 30, 2003

The Ladies looks at the better halves of Mao and Ceauscscu
by Jason Zinoman

Director Anne Kauffman and playwright Anne Washburn like to make fun of Bad Historical Drama. You know the type of production they mean. Two famous figures sit in a nebulous theatrical nowhere — it's often in hell or limbo — and one says something along the lines of, "After winning the Pulitzer, moving to Paris and having it out with mom, life was grand — that is, until I walked into Café de Flore." Think Imaginary Friends. Better yet, don't.

The Ladies, the ultraclever new work by Kauffman and Washburn, begins in this vein, with an exposition-heavy scene between Madame Mao and an interviewer. "You were born in a fairly remote, rural area," the questioner says. It's a tongue-in-cheek start to an unorthodox show that is as much about the making of a theater piece as it is about the wives of dictators.

The next scene, for instance, is between the actors portraying Kauffman and Washburn. "We're talking about Madame Mao," Kauffman the character says. "Right," responds the faux Washburn, whose next line sums up the show's ambivalent tone: "So is it working?"

The whole thing is very — to employ a term frequently used by Washburn and Kauffman — meta. "We're interested in where fact and fiction meet," Kauffman (the real one, not the character) says, sitting with Washburn in a downtown Café. But with these intellectually curious 34-year-old experimenters — both schooled at the University of California, San Diego — keeping fiction and reality separate can be as difficult as untangling the plot of Adaptation.

The Ladies mixes imagined scenes with Mao, Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos and Elena Ceausescu with dialogue between Kauffman and Washburn that was culled from conversations during the past two years. It's all part of the unique process of The Civilians, an emerging troupe that made a huge splash last year with their acclaimed first work, Canard, Canard, Goose? Developed through interviews with dozens of people, it was about a group of actors who flee to Long Lake, New York, in response to reports of the mistreatment of geese on the movie set of Fly Away Home.

Founded in 2001 by Steve Cosson, The Civilians provides something of an alternative to the pseudo-objective docu-theater of Anna Deveare Smith and her artistic progeny. The Civlians's shows make no attempt to reproduce reality. "We're documentary lacking authority," Cosson says.

Instead of interviews, The Civilians used research to build The Ladies, their sophomore effort. Kauffman and Washburn had always been fascinated with the first ladies of oppressive regimes, and after studying their lives, discovered many similarities in the way they used power. "They couldn't express it politically, but they did sexually and in their relationships," Washburn explains. "Ceausescu probably had everything to do with her husband's power. Madame Mao helped focus the Cultural Revolution."

But research into these women was only the beginning of the process. Improv exercises with actors were also key in constructing the play's characters. "When you work on [creating the show] with actors, it can help present a more accurate picture than in bad historical drama where there are lots of facts, but you don't have any sense of what actually happened,' Washburn offers. "But the other, dangerous side is when you say the world works just how you understand it."

Washburn and Kauffman agree on this point, but they'll be the first to acknowledge that they often come at things from opposing perspectives. "We're totally different," Washburn says. Indeed, Washburn, who hails from Berkeley, has the dry, brainy wit of a hipster bookworm, while the more expressive Kauffman describes herself as "a Jewish debutante from Phoenix, Arizona." "In high school, I was really tan," she says. "We had tan-orexia in Phoenix."

But, these days, the thing that separates these women most is their attitude toward the first ladies they write about. Kauffman admits to being fascinated by (and even liking) these women who stand by while their husbands commit horrible acts. "I am attracted to their inhumanity..." she confesses, before getting abruptly cut off by Washburn.

"Everyone has the capacity to become monstrous," Washburn says. "I don't think it's that rare. Then percent of women could be Imelda Marcos, and if you level us all in terms of class, wealth and other determining factors, I'm sure it's 50 percent."