“Prove your worth.”
By Melanie Hooks
Deadly words. For the soul, self-esteem, love of life. And yet many of us feel we are asked to do so again and again. Eisner nominee and rising playwright Kit Steinkellner uses this throw-down in her world premiere play “Ladies” as a barb between friends who have become rivals. It also brilliantly encapsulates the argument used to exclude women, queer and minority populations from the grand march of official histories. You think you’re important enough to be included? Prove it.
Steinkellner, director Jessica Kubzansky and their brilliant, sure-to-be award-winning cast do so. In fact, the conversation about whether the privileged female London artists and writers of 1750, by turns shunned, celebrated and silenced throughout history, deserve our attention now is the overt conversation of the piece, with playwright Steinkellner exploring this question as a central character.
In a fascinating, richly successful risk, she rotates all four cast members through her role, each taking several turns questioning their other characters’ real histories and motivations. While the concept of one performer taking on several roles within a piece isn’t new, the idea that four different performers might share the same role inside one feels fresh and lively. Any writer, any person, contains a multitude of voices and possibilities; the flip here is that regardless of that, those multiple voices might work as one – a strong thematic undercurrent throughout “Ladies.”
Steinkellner isn’t pretending that she knows the definitive truth about the past, unlike many a corner historian with access to the Internet. Far more honestly, she presents her own struggles to understand a small piece of turf that’s left out of many books – the small but resolute band of women in 18th century Britain who risked (and sometimes suffered) social blacklisting in order to pursue their artistic passions openly, without asking permission or using their husbands’ names.
That last point drives some of the deepest, hardest questions of the play: how much ownership are you willing to give up in order to see your art be produced? And if you’re willing to give it all away, does it matter that you made it? How will the world ever change if you don’t insist on your own name?
All this heavy ‘think piece’ type work might easily fall flat in lesser hands. But rest assured, these mitts are masterful. Poignant, dramatic, extremely funny and above all intensely human, “Ladies” is an extraordinary play. ‘Dynamic’ seems too small a word to describe each and every performance. ‘Perfect’ is fitting, though each actor might still find new moments to shine as the freshly workshopped piece continues its first run all month.
Carie Kawa’s Elizabeth Carter has carried her burden alone as the play opens – a laughingstock, considered ‘unmarriable’ due to publishing her poetry as a young woman. She hesitates to either lead or follow others back into the damaging limelight, the unflinching goal of group instigator Elizabeth Montagu (Meghan Andrews). Kawa and Andrews create a palpable tether between them, both taking turns pulling the other out of and into the fray. The possibility of some historic manic depression, based on Steinkellner’s research, challenges the characters’ connection. Kawa displays strength found in only the most private moments between the closest friends in their worst moments together; Andrews manages uber-ego fragility and unquestioning bravado as a kaleidoscope, not a false-feeling see-saw.
Similarly, the self-assured painter Angelica Kauffman (Tracey A. Leigh) plays it safe, painting what society deems ‘appropriate’ for ‘lady artists,’ and initially risks little until the parlor group introduces her to gorgeous, talented and painfully shy Fanny Burney (Jully Lee), the woman destined to become Kauffman’s muse. Kauffman and Burney’s push and pull of vulnerability and bravado, depending on who feels braver that week, brings an incredible layering to the tender relationship between women desperate to find anyone else who sees them, honors them for their whole selves. Leigh and Lee both shine as women finding their voices – and each other.
Their extraordinary connection leans into love, and Lee in particular must trust her scene partners with body and soul, posing nude for Kauffman’s first real life study. That this moment feels safe for both performer and audience speaks volumes to Steinkellner and Kubansky’s intentional care in hiring an all-female crew, the first Kubanksy (also Boston Court’s Co-Artistic Director) has worked with. “It brought really unexpected problem-solving,” she mused on opening night. Kawa and Leigh too commented on their amazement at that one fact informing everything about their experience. All of them praised male colleagues, including Artistic Co-Director Mark Saltzman, a fellow champion of the show, but noted that for such a ground-breaking piece about women’s history, their female-identifying environment lent to the feeling of comraderie and collaboration.
Composition and sound design by Nihan Yesil grabs your attention from the opening moments of women rocking out as they prep for their days down through the tender, hushed tones of hearts connecting. Sara Ryung Clement’s easily moveable set pieces and Prop Designer Courtney Lynne Dusenberry’s tea services and writing quills evoke the 1750s without stultifying the very modern play. Dramaturg Angelina del Balzo brings her 18th century research specialization to bear, along with her insights from the New Play Reading Festival, where this piece first premiered as a shorter staged reading in 2018, and Nike Douglas, accent coach, deserves special praise for producing four flawless English accents among the all-American cast. Even the lighting from Jaymi Lee Smith feels by turns innovatively embracing, terrifying and illuminating.
Costume Designer Ann Closs-Farley’s brilliant quick layers make the easy character slips from modern to past, female to male, possible. At several points in the show, the cast must also enact the women’s husbands, generally at their most brutal bedroom moments. Leigh said Closs-Farley’s inspiration to have them slip on a simple, velvet top coat for these sequences made everything click. She joked that she understood now why the late musical artist Prince walked around with such confidence. “Putting on that jacket changed everything,” she said. The audience undergoes the same illusion; people talking afterward shared that they were often fearful of the men, never mentioning that they were being played by women.
Rediscovering long-hidden stories of our shared past is one of modern art’s great calls to action. Steinkellner, Kubansky and Boston Court Pasadena set the bar for how to both right those historic wrongs and produce great, engaging, moving theater. See it here before New York or some other city snaps it away. “Ladies” is going places.
• Written by Kit Steinkellner
• Directed by Jessica Kubzansky
Meghan Andrews, Carie Kawa, Jully Lee, and Tracey A. Leigh
Boston Court Pasadena
70 N Mentor Ave., Pasadena, CA 91106
(Parking lot behind the theater)
• Through June 30:
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm; Sundays at 2:00pm; Monday, June 17 at 8:00pm
• General admission: $20 – $39.
Purchase tickets here.
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