Few thrills are comparable to watching the November wave of highly qualified women winning seats in federal and state governments. A Navy pilot, a woman who began her studies in a community college on the reservation, young mothers, and a former CIA officer – these candidates came in all shapes and sizes. Is it surprising that theatre-goers might expect a newly buffed mirror on Broadway?
This Fall several shows are paying homage to the older woman. The statistics are still alarming. Fewer than one-third of all speaking roles (speaking, not starring roles!) are female. And the number of these roles shrinks for seasoned talent. Last season Glenda Jackson at 81 won Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. In the Spring she returns to Broadway as King Lear.
Jackson is following in the footsteps of many acclaimed actors, among them Sarah Bernhardt, the protagonist of Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet at the American Airlines Theatre. The play opens when Bernhardt is 55 and broke, having lost over two million francs to star in Edmond Rostand’s La Samaritaine. She is too old to play ingenues, and the roles are too confining. (“I will not go back to playing flowers for fools!”) Rostand, her lover, is writing a new drama for her. She is debating the high financial and professional risks of playing Hamlet, a britches role that is shocking in 1899, when a woman wearing tights is still a scandal.
Rebeck’s play is funny, romantic, satiric, and very moving. Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs (Tony nomination for Present Laughter), often with tongue-in-cheek whimsy. The confrontations provide windows into the heart of a highly visible woman who has to remake her career. Actor Janet McTeer (The Taming of the Shrew), 1.85 meters tall, plays Bernhardt, who measured 1.6 meters, as larger-than-life, at times sawing the air and chewing the scenery, ironically to great effect. We wouldn’t dare to pity this Sarah! We admire her intelligence, vivacity, even pigheadedness. She will not play Hamlet as a woman, she proclaims, but as herself, a very contemporary sounding distinction. She also insists that the French translation reflect her version of the play, not Shakespeare’s.
The most poignant scene is between Bernhardt and Rostand (Jason Butler Harner, The Crucible). Rosamond Rostand (Ito Aghayere, Junk) has visited Sarah to persuade her to read Cyrano de Bergerac, her husband’s new script. Sarah learns new respect for this clever wife, but it is the script that convinces the actor that she must choose between romance and self-respect. She will not perform in Cyrano. Rostand argues. The new play puts her on a pedestal. But the male actor, she retorts, has all the poetry, the drama and the action. There is nothing for her. We in the audience also understand that Rostand may love her, but he sees only his fantasy of her. Rebeck depicts this dichotomy with a precision Ibsen would have appreciated. “A woman of power is a freak,” she observes.
Downtown at the Daryl Roth Theatre another legend is being celebrated in Gloria, a Life, written by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812). The energetic cast is led by the charming Christine Lahti (God of Carnage) through the life and times of feminist leader Gloria Steinem. We are all invited to relax on the cushioned stadium seats while the actors, playing a variety of roles, enjoy the Persian carpets and hassocks on the stage. Projections (by Elaine J. McCarthy) of Steinem’s life and the times identify specific moments and set the mood.
Less a drama than dramatic, structured like a retrospective, Gloria touches on identity issues. We follow Steinem from her difficult childhood with a single mother who suffered from mental illness to her early years as a journalist, assigned “women’s” articles and harassed. Her growing awareness of gender bias, her membership in activist groups, her founding of Ms. Magazine to give women a voice, and her late life romance and marriage to David Bale (father of Christian Bale) are more than steps in a journey. They are the little hooks that connect audience members to the women on stage. At the end, there is a feedback session on what affected the audience. Women of all ages shared their stories.
Gloria on stage becomes what Gloria Steinem became, a unifying and clarifying force. Steinem is now 84. Does she look good? When she turned fifty and was complimented, she said, shrugging off vanity, “This is what 50 looks like.” Like the play, she transformed the personal into the political. “The human race is like a bird with two wings, and if one wing is broken, no one can fly,” she wrote. Gloria has been extended through March 31, 2019.
Another legendary woman is back on the stage of the Golden Theatre in The Waverly Gallery. Elaine May has worn many hats. She reached prominence early, as Mike Nichols’ partner in improvisational comedy (1960 Grammy Award). Her play Adaptation won a Drama Desk Award. She was a screen writer, director, and actor. Now, at 86, she is playing Gladys Green, suffering from loss of hearing and dementia, but still running the Waverly Gallery. The exhausted family features Joan Allen (The Heidi Chronicles) as the daughter, David Cromer (2018 Tony for directing The Band’s Visit) as her son-in-law, Lucas Hedges as her grandson, our guide, and Michael Cera (Lobby Hero) as the young artist she befriends. Direction by Lila Neugebauer.
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth) often writes meaty roles for actors, and Gladys is one of his best. Elaine May is consistently believable, even as she navigates demanding transitions. Beneath the repeated questions, the retold reminiscences, and the panic attacks (“I’ve lost my keys” and “Where am I?), an intelligent woman — who talks about returning to her law practice — struggles to make sense of what is happening to her. From time to time we glimpse past the detritus of disease; it is heartbreaking.
Fans of the talented Stockard Channing (Tony, Drama Desk, Screen Actors Guild, Emmy, GLAAD awards and an Oscar nomination) will celebrate her return to the stage although Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell at the Laura Pels Theatre is a nasty, underwritten play about two angry, middle aged sons, their girlfriends, and the mother (Channing) they blame for ruining their lives.
Kristin Miller was a loving parent and an art historian, whose ex-husband removed her sons from Italy to English. Rather than chasing after them, she continued her career and rose to prominence in a field that gave her great pleasure. The family has gathered to celebrate her 60th birthday, but resentment outweighs affection. The dirty laundry is not very interesting. One guest feels sick after eating a fingernail in the peas. Another spills red wine on an outrageously expensive dress. And Kristin doesn’t have much to say for herself.
The last word should go to King Kong at the Broadway Theatre with book by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), music by Marius de Vries, clever lyrics by Eddie Perfect, directed by Drew McOnie.
Sonny Tilders designed the remarkable creature, which is manipulated by ten on-stage, gymnastic puppeteers. By transforming the maiden in distress into a fierce and very ambitious ingenue, Thorne heightened the familiar conflict and transformed King Kong into a cognizant, tragic figure.
McOnie’s choreography foreshadows and mirrors the giant gorilla but with great subtlety. Variety is balanced by repetition and a glorification of the human body, which transforms many of the numbers into works of art. Costumes by Roger Kirk move with the dancers, an added grace. I would love to rummage in that wardrobe. And I would like to return once more to admire the charismatic Christiani Pitts’ performance (singing, dancing, and acting) as the feisty hero, our moral compass.
Aladdin, New Amsterdam; American Son, Booth; Anastasia, Broadhurst; The Band’s Visit, Ethel Barrymore; Beautiful: Carole King Musical, Stephen Sondheim; Bernhardt/ Hamlet, American Airlines; The Band’s Visit, Ethel Barrymore; The Book of Mormon, Eugene O’Neill; Celebrity Autobiography, Marquis; The Cher Show, Neil Simon; Chicago the Musical, Ambassador; Choir Boy, Samuel J. Friedman; Come from Away, Schoenfeld; Dear Evan Hansen, The Music Box; The Ferryman, Bernard B. Jacobs; Frozen, St. James; Hamilton, Richard Rodgers; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Lyric; Head over Heels, Hudson; The Illusionists– Magic of the Holidays, Marquis; King Kong, Broadway; Kinky Boots, Al Hirschfeld; The Lifespan of a Fact, Studio 54; The Lion King, Minskoff; Mean Girls, August Wilson; Mike Birbiglia, The New One, Cort; My Fair Lady, Vivian Beaumont; The Nap, Samuel J. Friedman; Network, Cort; Once on this Island, Circle in the Square; The Phantom of the Opera, Majestic; The Play that Goes Wrong, Lyceum; Pretty Woman the Musical, Nederlander; Prom, Longacre; Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show, Imperial; School of Rock, Winter Garden; Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr; Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Lunt-Fontanne; To Kill a Mockingbird, Shubert; Torch Song, Helen Hayes; True West, American Airlines; Waitress, Brooks Atkinson; The Waverly Gallery, Golden; Wicked, Gershwin.
Editors’ note: a version of this article will appear in the Winter Issue 2018-2019, Plays International and Europe (PIE).
Glenda Frank: A poet who discovered TDF and fell in love with theatre. Now she takes her grandsons to plays. “I loved the little walk ups, productions with more actors than audience, revivals, new plays, Fringe. I began writing reviews. I pursued a Ph.D. in Theatre, amazed at the insights of the actors, directors, and designers in my seminars. I teach at FIT and vote for Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Henry Hewes Design awards. My plays have been part of the League’s New Play Festivals.” Member: Playwrights Gallery and ARTC.