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A CurtainUp Review

The Ladies
By Jenny Sandman

They're in hell, right? That's where you put famous historical figures when you want them to chat.
Jennifer Dundas & Jennifer R. Morris
Jennifer Dundas & Jennifer R. Morris
(Photo: Julia Beynon)
Given recent speculations in the press about the role of the First Lady, Dixon Place's The Ladies is especially timely. Though the title evokes genteel women having tea, it's about Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos, Eva Peron and Madame Mao--wives of some of the twentieth century's most brutal and notorious leaders. They came from poor families, endured disastrous marriages and conflicted relationships with their own people in order to transform themselves. Though in positions of great power, at least peripherally, they weren't always powerful.

The play is presented as a work in progress. Scenes from the lives of the four main characters are intercut with scenes of playwright Anne Washburn and director Anne Kauffman (played by Jennifer Dundas and Jennifer R. Morris, respectively) shaping the material. Kauffman and Washburn meet in cafes and apartments, discussing the script, the women, the production and their research, and using their own recorded conversations as part of the dialogue. Both are brimming with ideas and thoughts, so much so that at times they are nearly inarticulate. In contrast, the four ladies are cool, calm and collected. They choose their words with care, but aren't afraid to fight for their ideals.

As the play takes shape, the four main characters move in and out of the action, performing bits from their own lives. Sometimes they play other characters, sometimes their own husbands. They use transcripts, songs, historical quotes, and a dance number to speakto each other, to themselves, and to us. The playwright draws on the themes of A Doll's House and Anna Karenina and includes liberal quotes from Nora and Anna, both women who became powerful and self-aware though their stories did not end happily.

Surprisingly, the play seems less concerned with the biographical facts of the lives of these women than in communicating the essential essence of their personalities-- notably, their fascination with power. The nonlinear structure and juxtapositions give the piece its energy and drama. However, the Mesdames Ceausescu, Marcos, Peron and Mao are so composed and formal and, well, structured that this jumbled arrangement does them no justice. In fact, the play leaves you only wanting to know more about them and their lives. That's not a bad thing -- though it would be nice to come up less short on actual information.

Morris and Dundas are fiercely animated and often quite funny as the playwright and director. The four central actresses (Hellman, Bernstine, Striar and Weller) are just p[lain fierce, moving in and out of characters and worlds with ease.

The action takes place on a bare, unadorned set, with only a minimum of props and four paintings of the four women. Some of the props--tea cups, a microphone--assume thematic importance, as do the Jackie Kennedy-like suits and sensible shoes that the ladies wear.

The Ladies has the makings of a very good play, but it's not there yet. It's an interesting treatise on the nature of power and transformation, and what women are willing to do for both. Though muddled, occasional clear and noteworthy images stand out--it ends with Eva Peron drinking the tears of her own people.

The play overall needs more shape and Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos, Eva Peron and Madame Mao themselvesshould be stronger characters, more integral to the plot; a not unfair requirement considering their strong personalities.

Editor's Note: Interestingly, another play about women involved with infamous dictators is currently having its premiere at another Off-Broadway theater. Summit Conference revolves around a tea party that unites Mussolini's and Hitler's mistress and I'm including a link which will become active as soon as this link to that will become active as soon as CurtainUp's review of Summit Conference is posted.

Written by Anne Washburn
Directed by Anne Kauffman
With Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer Dundas, Nina Hellman, Jennifer R. Morris, Maria Striar, and Alison Weller
Lighting Design by Gwen Grossman
Costume Design by Sarah Beers
Set Design by Alexander Dodge
Sound Design by Mike Frank
Original Art by Michelle Memran
Running time: 1 hour and thirty minutes with no intermission
Dixon Place in association with Chashama and Cherry Lane Theatre Chashama, 111 West 42nd Street; 212-219-0736
2/07/04 to 2/29/04
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on February 7th performance
Written by
Directed by
Set Design:
Costume Design:
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