Seeing something unlike anything you’ve seen before can be curious, mystifying, and even jarring. That was my experience this weekend with Venus Theatre’s presentation of what was, at least for me, a whole new genre of work. There were, I learned, 400 British Suffrage plays written between 1900 and 1920 – in little monologues and a few “snippets” of plays taken from The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays, plays created by and for the Actresses’ Franchise League.
Let me set the context. I’d driven in the cold rain about an hour north to Laurel, Md. Adjacent to a suburban apartment complex bordering on the Patuxent River I discovered a storefront theatre. Inside, the space was no larger than fifteen by thirty-five feet, a black-box shoebox theatre.
Though the plays to be viewed were written as “unapologetic propaganda pieces, written with passion and inspired by frustration” by women in the first decades of last century to fuel the Suffragette movement, the only other people in the audience, other than this reviewer, were men. (No doubt the day-long protest event on the Mall had something to do with that, usurping audience attendance.)
Suddenly, from offstage a familiar chant was taken up –“Tell me what democracy looks like!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” – and the cast, all in the pink knit “Pussy hats,” exploded onto the stage. Quickly, they got the audience to join in, and we were all, suddenly, there back at this year’s Women’s March. Then, just as quickly, they were gone.
Director Deborah Randall made a rather unusual short curtain speech, which in addition to the familiar logistical request of “no devices developed beyond 1910 should be active,” made us take a vote on whether, following the curtain call, we would join in singing, dancing at an 80’s party, or to “slip quietly away without contact.” Knowing the third was the cowardly choice, we opted for number two.
Then the handful of actresses, in semblances of period costumes that afforded quick changes for the multiple characters, took us back in time. Well, sort of…
The first two “shorts” were delivered as true monologues, a popular form of the period. As a slightly silly and bewildered young woman at the start of “all the fuss,” Allison Frisch delivered the anti-suffragist side of things. She and the evening were just warming up.
Then Jean H. Miller sat in a chair and began to prattle her way through The Mother’s Meeting, (author: Mrs. Harlow Phibbs) giving us Mrs. Peter Puckle’s recent memory of a political gathering she’d come to for the free tea and biscuits. There this working-class woman and mother of eight found her kind and her voice, rising to her feet and giving the “what’s haves” what-for and some practical knowledge of how life and women’s need-tos really work. The ramblings seemed authentic, and I rather liked this no-nonsense woman, speaking her mind directly to me.
Then followed the presentation of four short plays broken up by an intermission. It was indeed curious, something like a cross between a quadrille, where the actresses changed partners and dashed from side to side up onto the little platforms, and a rough and broad presentation by the beloved “rude mechanicals” of Shakespeare’s own A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Nevertheless, in all the chaos, each one of these actresses produced an unforgettable gem of a moment. In Tradition, (author: George Middleton) Allison Frisch played a mother who sat silently most of the play doing needlework but her smoldering eyes and otherwise expressive face helped us understand so deeply the long silencing of woman – so many who otherwise would have been creative voices for us. In the same play Emily Sucher as Mary gave a grounded emotional performance that made one see she had the makings of a Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull. Erin Hanratty played Mary’s Father with understated resolve to save his daughter from degradation in pursuing a life on stage so we felt some sympathy for his struggle with change.
Want to go?
Selections from The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays
closes April 9, 2017
Details and tickets
Christine Jacobs came on like gangbusters, first as a pianist and, one imagines, a clairvoyant artiste in Beatrice Harraden’s Lady Geraldine’s Speech.
In the final, How the Vote Was Won, (authors: Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John) she was so convincing as a relative who was moving in on her closest relative to leverage him to get the “Votes for Women,” that I could well believe her confidence would win over any male parliamentarian.
Actresses kept appearing, and as more characters were needed, the stage manager and even the ticket-taker in modern dress took on the roles, sometimes memorized and sometimes just reading on-book. Characters even used potted plants as stand-ins, by simply plopping a turn-of-the-century hat on them. In one scene change, two actresses conferred in whispers, and the Stage Manager hissed something like, “I’ll do this one.”
At one point the Director takes on a large role and in the middle of a long speech loses her line – everyone goes “Whoo!” – and she continues dispersing pages of the unneeded script into the air and losing her cigar and accent just to get through the muddle. Sometimes a character reprises the chant “This is what Democracy looks like.” In the middle of another scene, mentioned ticket-taker sits in like a modern day comedic chorus as might be played by Whoopi Goldberg and begins to chant the spiritual “Freedom.”
What was planned, what was improvised, what actress had not even bothered to “phone-in” her performance we might never know. But you can believe every single one of these women knew why she was there and voiced what the entire room felt had to be voiced. As rough and tumble and “unaccoutred” as the whole evening was, something fresh and most curious was taking place, something truly that I had never been seen before.
Randall has directed the project with passion and also a sense of self-deprecation and fun.
And yes, at the end, we all stood up together and danced. Sometimes a woman has to do what a woman has to do.
These plays could serve as a rally on the steps of a government building on the mall or just in a portico between marble columns. The humor in some of them come as a welcome respite to these urgent times, their serious message a reminder that “we have overcome” before.
The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays. Edited by Naomi Paxton. Directed by Deborah Randall. Scenic and Lighting Design: Amy Rhodes. Sound Design: Neil McFadden. Costumes and Props: Deborah Randall. Produced by Venus Theatre. With Jean H. Miller, Allison Frisch, Christie Jacobs, Erin Hanratty, Emily Sucher, Lydia Howard, Myrrh, and Deborah Randall. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.