It’s common to compare theatrical comedies to desserts — both are often artful, sweet confections enjoyed after dinner. But the best comedies slip a little mickey in between the pastry layers, like a brandy Napoleon or a mocha tiramisu.
The Lady Was a Gentleman, currently onstage at the Dorie Theatre in Hollywood, is that kind of comedy. More like a tiramisu, I’d say, because like the espresso hidden in the mocha, it contains elements that may, hours later, keep you awake and pondering.
Playwright Barbara Kahn has folded in more than a hint of race (and slavery), with generous dollops of gender identity and fluidity, while whipping up a light, easily consumed “might have been” tale of superstar Charlotte Cushman’s farewell US tour 160 years ago — just before the Civil War.
Cushman, gifted with a contralto voice, won part of her fame in “trouser roles;” her Romeo and her Lady Macbeth were equally hailed. She was also known for having a free black woman, Sallie Mercer, as her traveling companion and dresser. And she made no secret of being a lesbian (though she did live in Rome for 20 years, in a community of expatriate American artists, many of whom were lesbians). To add frosting to the tiramisu, Cushman was a bit of a polyamorist.
Kahn handles these matters — which can be so highly charged — with calm wit and grace. Sallie (Sonja Inge), our narrator, lets nothing shock or unsettle her, though we’re in St. Louis in 1858 and Missouri is a slave state. Charlotte (Dawn Alden) fancies fainting in fits of love, but she’s a savvy protagonist who makes things happen around her. Between them, they navigate their world pretty much on their own terms.
Charlotte relishes a mutual crush with Mrs. Ryan (Tara Donovan), the actress playing her Juliet; then she meets Emma Crow (Maikiko James), the smitten teenage daughter of a prominent politician. These amours spice Charlotte’s demanding life, but she finds she cannot forsake Emma, and promises to take her to Rome to live with her and her wife (which she did in real life).
Meanwhile, a more purely fictional drama emerges when Marie Louise (Chantal Thuy), a young French mail-order bride, arrives to find her husband — not only an unwashed “mountain man” in filthy buckskins, but underneath them, a woman. Marie Louise and Jane Partridge (Lacy Altwine) dance gingerly toward love, providing much of the play’s broader comedy.
Kahn’s delightful storytelling lets us live for an evening (or a matinee afternoon) in a world of love and laughter — without ever losing awareness of the bitter divisions tearing apart the larger world outside. In our microcosm, women can do anything, and everything that matters; most of all by persistently giving more attention to art and love than to war and fear. The lesson is never spoken, but it strikes very deep.
This confection with a kick is served with panache. The uncredited set conveys period and place economically, and includes a pleasing comic invention, all in a tiny space; Danielle Ozymandias’ costumes are flawlessly apt. Stacy Abrams’ lighting makes the stage feel much larger, and more varied, than it is; and Suze Campagna’s sound design carries us easily along.
Alden provides the tireless winds that fill Charlotte’s sails, making her by turns masterful, childish, and wisely mature, and always engaging. Inge wins our confidence by taking us into hers, always holding the dangers of Sallie’s life like a power poker hand. And Altwine boldly takes Jane to the edge of parody, but never over it, never abandoning the true heart under the layers. These three are artists to learn from.
Thuy, with the most complex of the three “secondary” characters, creates a Marie Louise we reluctantly come to love, then performs a deft, believable bouleversement. Donovan gives us a nice cameo of a provincial “pro” who turns hopelessly “amateur” when swept away by a star, then recovers her balance. And James skillfully offers an almost irritatingly persistent girl who, by persisting, becomes a young woman to reckon with.
Director Kate Motzenbacker does what the best directors do — disappears utterly into her actors’ performances. Nothing stalls, nor is awkward or contrived; all happens as it must, and percolates along satisfyingly. Broad’s Word gives Kahn’s timely tale a sure-handed, playful West Coast premiere, and in so doing give a good account of themselves.
The Lady Was a Gentleman, by Barbara Kahn, directed by Kate Motzenbacker.
Presented by Broad’s Word Ensemble, at the Dorie Theatre at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through April 29th.