Author Anne Washburn and director Anne Kauffman have taken the axiom "only write what you know" truly to heart with The Ladies. This compelling new play, presented by Dixon Place is association with Chashama and Cherry Lane Theatre, is full of very little other than what they know - or think they know - about four important political women.
But while Jiang Qing (better known as Madame Mao), Elena Ceausescu, Eva Perón, and Imelda Marcos all appear in the play and have their life stories presented, they're not really the story's central figures. Instead, it's Kauffman and Washburn themselves - who are portrayed in the play by Jennifer R. Morris and Jennifer Dundas - who are the real foci of The Ladies.
They created the play from a combination of the first ladies' real words and transcribed sound recordings of Kauffman, Washburn, and the play's actresses discussing the women in question without a tremendous depth of understanding of the material. That makes The Ladies less of a study of who the women actually were than an examination of how Kauffman, Washburn, and the others reacted to and perceived - accurately or not - them from the next step down the line of history.
As a result, much of the play is composed of hearsay, conjecture, and rumor, but Washburn uses it to uncover the truth about her four famous subjects. The characters Washburn has created are actresses who are portraying the first ladies, while still aware that they are in the play; at any given moment, words may have vastly different meaning depending on whether they're being spoken by the first ladies or by the characters of the actresses portraying them.
The addition (and eventual removal) of these layers of complexity is what makes much of The Ladies so exciting. Perhaps Washburn occasionally goes too far - the depiction of fictional great women like Nora from Ibsen's A Doll House or Anna Karenina herself alongside the real figures might muddle things a bit too much - but the stream-of-consciousness writing style (which all the actresses perform beautifully) successfully pulls back the layer of mystique from the creative process, exposing it in its rawest, most unfinished form. The Ladies really feels as if it's being created while you're watching it.
In that way, Washburn and Kauffman have certainly succeeded in tying in the concept for their show-within-the-show with the concept that their characters in the show devise for presenting the women: each was a performer of some sort, and that performing allowed each to achieve - and eventually lose - great power. Perón (Maria Striar) was a radio and film performer, Marcos (Alison Weller) a singer, Mao (Nina Hellman) an accomplished stage actress, and Ceausescu (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) someone who pretended to understand what she did not while never letting her ignorance stop her.
As if to underscore this, the famous women have biographies in the show's program, just as the actresses portraying them do. It seems an odd touch at first, but it makes sense as the play approaches its climax, when the characters of Washburn and Kauffman reveal their respect, love, and awe for these women by explaining how their own views of life and power have been changed (or revealed) as a result. In the finale that follows soon after, they demonstrate their connections to the women (and the power they have over determining how those women are perceived in the play) in an elaborate, musical, and fully theatrical way.
The specific details of that won't be revealed here, but Washburn's songs, Karinne Keithley's choreography, and Kris Kukul's musical direction here and throughout the play are all just right. So is Kauffman's direction and all the women's acting, in addition to Gwen Grossman's lights, Sarah Beers's straightforward costumes, and Alexander Dodge's portrait-inspired inspired set.
Everyone involved in The Ladies has managed to take its potentially baffling concept (or series of concepts) and not only make it work but make it soar. As a historical look at four women who changed the course of modern history, perhaps it's less than reliable, but as an exploration of the personal effects these women had on others in their own countries and around the world, it's excellent.
Dixon Place in association with Chashama and Cherry Lane Theatre present