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Horseplay: or, The Fickle Mistress, A Protean Picaresque

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Molly Pope and Mark St. Cyr
Photo by James Eden

As long as there has been a spotlight, there have been individuals who have found a way to bask in its warm and public glow, regardless of their questionable talents: the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, or, from earlier years, George Hamilton, the Gabor sisters, and others who are "famous for being famous." This phenomenon is not merely a product of modern-day talk shows and reality TV, however. One prime example takes us back to the 1800s and the wildly popular actress Adah Isaacs Menken (Molly Pope), the subject of Theatre Askew's Horseplay: or, The Fickle Mistress, a Protean Picaresque, now on view at La MaMa.

Horseplay, written by Indie playwright Trav S. D., takes advantage of the fact that Menken—who became an international star in the melodrama Mazeppa, playing the role of a man and famously riding on horseback wearing a nude bodysuit—gave out so many different versions of her life story that no one seems to know the truth.

The design of the play uses the time-honored frame of dictated memoirs, in this case the highly flexible and suspect version of Menken's life and loves as told to her agent and manager. The production shows her to be a nineteenth century "Zelig," who presented various portraits of herself depending on the situation and whom she wished to impress. To her Jewish husband, she was Jewish; to her Irish lover, she was Catholic; to the writer, the senior Alexander Dumas, she was of African ancestry; to the bohemian actress/writer Ada Clare, she was a lesbian. As the playwright posits, "there are as many truths to tell as there are stars in the sky to wish upon."

Under Elyse Singer's zippy direction, the versatile troupe of actors play multiple roles, often making head-spinning rapid character and gender switches as they relate the varied takes on Menken's biography in a wildly exaggerated style that reflects her wildly exaggerated story telling. These include Tiffany Abercrombie, Tim Cusack (Theatre Askew's artistic director), Jan Leslie Harding, Chuck Montgomery, Everett Quinton, and Mark St. Cyr—all of them excellent. The play, running two-and-a-half hours with intermission, is underscored nicely with original music by William TN Hall, who has provided Ms. Pope with a couple of lively numbers to perform, including one in which she channels Lady Gaga.

But none of this would work without the central and terrific portrayal of Adah Isaacs Menken by Molly Pope, in whose acting you'll find traces of Barbra Streisand, Gilda Radner, Mae West, Carol Burnett, and Bette Midler—a perfect embodiment of the charisma and wit of a woman determined to make her way in what was most certainly a man's world.

Horseplay: or, The Fickle Mistress, A Protean Picaresque
Through March 1
La MaMa / Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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