Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pioneering Women -- On Land And Sea

In the 2003 hit musical, Avenue Q, Kate Monster sings a song about the futility of pursuing certain relationships. There are times when I wonder if the lyrics (written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) are equally applicable to the challenge of creating a monologue about a person of cultural and historical significance:
"There's a fine, fine line
Between a lover and a friend.
There's a fine, fine line
Between reality and pretend.
And you never know 'til you reach the top
If it was worth the uphill climb.
There's a fine, fine line between love
And a waste of your time.

There's a fine, fine line
Between a fairy tale and a lie.
And there's a fine, fine line
Between 'You're wonderful' and 'Goodbye.'
I guess if someone doesn't love you back
It isn't such a crime,
But there's a fine, fine line between love
And a waste of your time.

And I don't have the time to waste on you anymore.
I don't think that you even know what you're looking for.
For my own sanity, I've got to close the door
And walk away...

There's a fine, fine line
Between together and not.
And there's a fine, fine line
Between what you wanted and what you got.
You gotta go after the things you want
While you're still in your prime...
There's a fine, fine line between love
And a waste of your time."
Two recent monologues were built around pioneering women who, in their own ways, changed the course of history. While neither monologue soared, thanks to the strength of the actor and the wealth of source material one monologue was able to hold its own.

The other crashed and burned.

* * * * * * * * *
A prominent figure in Irish history and folklore, Grace O'Malley/Gráinne Ní Mháille (1530-1603) has inspired numerous writers ranging from James Joyce to Morgan Llywelyn.

After a series of postponements, Exit Theatre finally debuted its production of another one-woman show about Grace O'Malley similarly titled "A Most Notorious Woman" as part of this month's DIVAfest. Its promotional material trumpeted that:
"Grace 'Grania' O'Malley, the hussy who hath indeed impudently stepped o'er the bounds of womanhood, is the center character in playwright Maggie Cronin's story of the Irish pirate queen. Set against a backdrop of an Ireland soon to be lost forever, an Ireland on the cusp of history, this solo piece performed by Christina Augello follows Grace from a young defiant girl to her historic meeting with England's Queen Elizabeth in 1593 at the age of 63. Driven by a fervent love of the sea and a fierce loyalty to the Gaelic way of life, Grace became a 'cut throat, cut purse sailor woman,' a symbol of national defiance, 'a nursemaid to every rebellion in Connaught.' Hard-nosed businesswoman -- barbarian -- woman in love -- romantic heroine -- all are revealed in this absorbing and multi-layered portrait of a most bewitching and infuriating historical figure."
If only!

With an inept, execrable script by Maggie Cronin (published in 2004 by Britain's Lagan Press) and some painfully amateurish direction by Jayne Wenger, DIVAfest's production quickly imploded under the weight of its misguided folly. Despite an interesting unit set designed by Johnny Mayne (I particularly liked the octopus painted on the floor) and some overzealous sound design by Ted Crimy, the show's most remarkable strength was its determination to bore an audience with its depiction of such a fascinating historical character.

Christina Augello as Ireland's Pirate Queen, Grace O'Malley

In trying to assess the show's failure, the most logical answer is that this production of A Most Notorious Woman (which was also produced by Augello) was simply a labor of love that went horribly wrong. Following a hearty announcement warning the audience to stow their cell phones and notice the exits (spoken in "Pirate" tongue), I found myself witnessing a performance in which Queen Elizabeth had numerous conversations using a cell phone, the Earl of Leicester (which should be pronounced "Lester") was adamantly referred to as "lye-ses-ter," and the script disintegrated into a brogue-encrused recitation of clan names and Irish history.

To her credit, Augello mastered a fierce amount of memorization and projected her voice with the focus of a Wagnerian contralto. Unfortunately, Cronin's script doesn't have an ounce of the theatricality that blazes so fiercely in the clip from Molly Lyons's similarly-titled monologue about Ireland's notorious Pirate Queen.

Aaargh, 'twas a blessing when this show ended!

* * * * * * * * *
Center Repertory of Walnut Creek had much better luck with its recent staging of The Lady With All The Answers. Based on the life and letters of the famous advice columnist, Ann Landers (born Esther "Eppie" Lederer), this one-woman show was written by David Rambo with the help of Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard. Keenly aware of deadlines (the play takes place as Lederer is struggling to write the column she published on July 1, 1975 in which she confided that her marriage was breaking up), Lederer is also seen trying to sort out which letters she should include in an upcoming book.

Born in Sioux City Iowa on the 4th of July (her identical twin later became rival advice columnist Abigail van Buren, who wrote the Dear Abby column), Lederer and her husband Jules eventually settled in Chicago. She lived in a high-rise apartment on Lakeshore Drive for close to 30 years.  

Lederer began writing the Ask Ann Landers column in October of 1955 (shortly after the death of its creator) and continued to do so for 47 years. At one point, her syndicated column appeared in 1,200 newspapers and was read by nearly 90 million people on a daily basis.

Kerri Shawn as Eppie Lederer (Photo by: Ann Luke)

Directed by Scott Dennison (on a unit set cluttered with "Dear Ann Landers" letters), this monologue rested on the able shoulders of actress Kerri Shawn. Decked out in a wig that brought back fond memories of Landers' frequent appearances on television, Shawn created a character of boundless zeal and curiosity who took as much delight in discovering what Americans had kept secret about their lives as she did in trying to help those suffering emotional and psychological pain.

Lederer (who enjoyed tremendous access to important politicians, doctors, and celebrities) always liked to boast about her willingness and ability to consult "the experts." Whether writing to a suicidal gay teenager to assure him that there was nothing wrong with him or visiting injured soldiers in Army hospitals in Viet Nam, Landers became a voice that Americans felt they could trust about all kinds of matters ranging from the proper way to hang toilet paper on its holder to previously taboo issues of intimacy and sexuality. 

Kerri Shawn as Eppie Lederer (Photo by: Ann Luke)

There is much fussiness and stage business throughout the evening which helps to stretch out the play's length while capturing the creative energy of someone who, like so many other writers, does her work in bits and spurts between stretches of procrastination. (Sex columnist Dan Savage now owns the desk where Lederer composed most of her writing when she was not working in her bathtub).

One of the show's high points is her description of the day she was about to appear on a talk show opposite porn star Linda Lovelace without fully understanding the meaning of "deep throat." Once her embarrassed daughter dished the dirt with Eppie, the feisty columnist saw this red-hot kernel of information as an opportunity to help educate her readers.

The Lady With All The Answers offers audiences a two-hour visit with the feisty woman who changed the face of printed advice columns. Performances continue at the Lesher Center's Knight Stage 3 Theatre through May 22 (you can order tickets here.)

No comments: