Women are flying solo, on Broadway and off
Well, it's Women's History Month again. Stifle that shrug. The theater -- no doubt by happenstance -- is suddenly flush with biographical solos about women, all dead, most recently and one not recent at all.
As we speak, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is being brilliantly, brutally yet compassionately deconstructed by actress Tina Benko in Nobel-Prize winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek's "Jackie" at the Women's Project Theater.
Previews begin March 26 for the April 22 opening of Colm Toibin's "The Testament of Mary," which means we get the chance to watch the amazing Fiona Shaw share what is billed as the mother of Jesus' own story -- "the one which has not been heard."
Another story that has not been heard is the one Bette Midler is rehearsing to ignite as Sue Mengers, Hollywood's first woman superagent, who represented anybody lucky enough to be somebody. John Logan's play, deliciously titled "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers," begins previews April 5 for an April 24 opening.
What this means, for starters, is that four women actors are individually getting to hold stages in a theater that, some days, seems more interested in men dressing up as women.
Also, the onslaught marks the return, at least for a month or two, of the one-person bio. Not so long ago, seasons often included an historical solo -- about Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Thurgood Marshall. These days, we are more likely to see William Shatner and Mike Tyson talking about themselves.
The most famous one-woman bio in my conscious lifetime was "The Belle of Amherst," Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, which I found precious but many adored. Otherwise, all I can remember are three separate portrayals of Tallulah Bankhead.
Julie Crosby, artistic director of the thriving Women's Project, has her own seriously amusing theory on our one-woman boomlet. She calls it "the Hillary Clinton effect." In a recent phone interview, Crosby speculated that "more people may be willing to look at a woman in a spotlight . . . Also, the culture may be at a point when we can acknowledge that women are as messy and complex as men."
The two plays I've already seen -- "Jackie" and "Ann" -- are complete opposites in mythmaking style and idealized intention. "Jackie" is part of Jelinek's cycle of "Princess Plays," including explorations of Snow White and Princess Diana, and, as the knotty writer told Yale's Theater magazine, represent "a pre-stage of femininity." Stuck in a dirty cement space that could be a drained pool -- or hell -- Benko's tough Jackie virtuosically, almost absent-mindedly, explains the many aspects of manipulating and being manipulated as a fashion icon. Oh, yes, she also lugs silver-foil crash dummies meant to be Jack, Ari, Bobby and her dead babies. Clearly, this is not for the easily shocked.
In stark contrast, we have Taylor's meticulous impersonation of the pioneering one-term Texas governor and pioneering, shrewd good-old-gal. The intention is to create a portrait which, despite a few warts and salty words, is admiring and celebratory.
The women playing Mary and Sue Mengers have different challenges. Irish actress Shaw and her director/collaborator Deborah Warner have already haunted us with visions of T.S. Eliot's "Waste Land" and Euripides' "Medea." Theatergoers are less likely to divide over the look of Shaw's Mary than her words about, even then, life in a man's world.
Many people know how Mengers looked and sounded, but few of them are regular Broadway theatergoers. In his online editor's letter in April's Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter -- close friend of Mengers and a producer of the play -- talks about the Maureen Dowd interview with Midler in that new issue.
He writes how "Dowd talked at length with Bette not only about the similarities between Mengers' and Midler's backgrounds and lives but also about the difficulties in playing a real person of recent vintage, and one with a lot of friends who will be watching to see if the production does her justice."
Except for Midler's extravagant clam-on-a-half-shell specials, the actress has not been on Broadway since 1967, when she was a replacement Tzeitel in "Fiddler on the Roof." According to Carter, the casting took persuasion, but "She knew Sue, Sue adored her, and not to get too showbizzy on you, it seemed like a perfect match."
Tina Packer's "Women of Will" is neither a one-woman show (Nigel Gore is her expert sidekick) nor a nonfiction biography. But Packer, the founding director and force of nature behind Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., is ensconced downtown with her revelatory, extremely friendly feminist analysis of Shakespeare's evolution as seen through the growing power of his women characters.
So I phoned to get her wisdom on our apparent new interest in solo bios about women. "Women are looking to strengthen their voices," she said with deceptive simplicity. "One of the ways to do that is to strengthen the voices of other women. With Shakespeare, he saw the way out through the women's voices."
Of course, there is another one-person play on Broadway this spring -- "Macbeth." Alan Cumming plays all the characters. Lady Macbeth need not apply.
"JACKIE" -- Women's Project Theater, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org.
"ANN" -- Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, telecharge.com
"THE TESTAMENT OF MARY" -- opens April 22, Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., telecharge.com
"I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS" -- opens April 24, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., telecharge.com