That the stage of the Lion Theatre is swathed almost entirely in red is not unintentional. The crimson draperies, which like the chandeliers accenting them, at once recall a classy hotel, a dilapidated brothel, and the height of opulent extravagance, are certainly striking. But their evocation of passion is only a diversionary tactic, for they provide a backdrop for lives considerably less sordid than you might initially believe.
Only gradually over the course of The Mistress Cycle, the captivating new song cycle by Jenny Giering and Beth Blatt in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, do you come to understand that it's the feelings these "outsider" women engender, and not their forbidden nature, that makes them worthy of a show of their own. As the show unfolds, it becomes increasingly impossible to regard the women at its center as simply whores or home wreckers - they're people with hearts, obligations, and responsibilities that have placed them in difficult situations, but not always for the wrong reasons.
Take, for example, Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of France's King Henri II, who was - in all the ways that mattered, except marriage and title - his queen. Or a young Chinese woman named Ching, who becomes a concubine to the emperor, but rises from her lowly station to a position of great importance when she bears his child. Or author Anais Nin, whose salacious writings garnered her considerable fame, but never enabled her to convince her father of her innate worth.
These women, along with singer-madam Lulu White and photographer Tess Walker, cover a wide span of history, emotions, and sexual awareness; part of the point is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In her book and lyrics, Blatt searches desperately and seldom in vain for the humanity in these women, and then allows them to tell their stories in aching, often frustrated song.
This is most fully evident in Diane (played by the divine Lynne Wintersteller), who has no illusions about her place in Henri's life, whether rendezvousing with him on the night of his coronation, or stealing a quiet moment to mourn his death after his wife officially shuts her out. She's a keen businesswoman, in her way, able and willing to capitulate to official form, but well aware of her place in the king's heart. Her second solo, "Half A Bowl," in which she attempts to feed the ailing Queen Catherine when no one else will, is the show's most chillingly realized moment, one of the few times that the effects of being a mistress (a term, the show sardonically notes, with no male equivalent) are seen in a noticeably wider context.
Other songs, like the uptown-sophisticated "Death By 1000 Cuts" for Tess (a powerful Sally Wilfert) and the ghostly reverential "An Offering" for Ching (Stephanie Bast), don't lack musical or dramatic complexity, but also don't display equivalent creativity. Much the same is true of the numbers for Anais (Lisa Brescia), which strain too much to make their points about the fleeting unpredictability of fame and influence, though the earthily jazzy songs for Lulu (Mary Bond Davis), nicely capture her arc of hope, heartbreak, and redemption. Regardless, each performer fully satisfies, and succeeds at creating a three-dimensional individual.
Blatt's lyrics are sometimes too inelegant for the proceedings, and facile or false rhymes or poorly articulated feelings spoil the conspiratorial mood of the proceedings more easily than might usually be the case. Even so, Giering's music - which alternates between haunting, expectant, and resigned (qualities also cannily brought forth in James Sampliner's accompaniment) redeems them: Much the like the women they chronicle, even the more pedestrian of the lyrics rise to vital importance in the presence of a stronger, legitimizing force.
Joe Calarco's direction, which centers on highlighting the sisterhood the women share, makes full use of Michael Fagin's sumptuous scenery, Anne Kennedy's alluring costumes, and Chris Lee's piercing lighting. The show's most quietly stunning moment, though, is prop-related: Late in The Mistress Cycle, Ching produces a series of turquoise scarves that, backed by so many layers of red, seem jaggedly at odds with their surroundings.
It's much to the credit of the show's authors that items so commonplace can, for a few moments, be extraordinary. Blatt and Giering want to remind us that the women they chronicle - scorned and whispered about though they might be - are no different.
New York Musical Theatre Festival