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Grand Dames of Tyranny

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Dictators’ women strive for more than just fancy footwear

In the early 1960s the Dragon Lady of South Vietnam, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, born Tran Le Xuan, or “Beautiful Spring”––she who relished the “barbecues” of all those monks who immolated themselves in protest against the Saigon dictatorship––passed through New York on her way to Rome, dropping scathing remarks en route about weak-kneed America and President John F. Kennedy, whom she blamed for the assassination of her husband, the former president, and brother-in-law.

A young reporter was sent to interview her. I remember that reporter’s lead sentence: “She is the world’s first truly liberated woman.”

I also remember the reporter’s name: Nora Ephron.

Well, Mme. Nhu wasn’t exactly the first. You might say she had some competition even in her own lifetime from Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, Mme. Mao Zedong, Eva Peron, and a number of other wives or consorts of powerful men.

Now, curiously, there are two plays that have opened Off Off Broadway within 24 hours and 12 blocks of one another, one of them dealing with four such ladies, and called, all simply, “The Ladies”; the other, “Summit Conference,” bringing face to face two other women who are no less historical.

They are (to take the latter two first) Adolf Hitler’s Eva Braun and Benito Mussolini’s Clara Petacci, in an imagined confrontation wherein Clara calls upon Eva in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin in 1941, and the two famous mistresses spend 90 beautiful, bitchy minutes putting down each other and each other’s national attributes.

This needle-sharp drama, by the Scottish playwright Robert David MacDonald, comes to us by way of Glasgow and London, where 22 years ago it starred no less than Glenda Jackson as a Scarlett O’Hara-quoting Eva Braun, Georgina Hale as a Bette Davis-quoting Clara Petacci, and Gary Oldman as the young German soldier on guard who turns out to be a Polish-born Jew vulnerable to their sexual baiting.

In the show here at Urban Stages, the actors under Kit Thacker’s direction are Sarah Megan Thomas, Rita Petropinto, and Eric Altheide.

“The Ladies” is quite a different cup of tea.

Its four famous figures are Elena Ceausescu of Romania (1919-1989); Imelda Marcos, “Steel Butterfly” of the Philippines (1929- ); Eva Peron of Argentina (1919-1952); and an Anna Karenina-worshipping Jiang Qing (Mme. Mao) of China (1914-1991).

But there are also two other characters in “The Ladies,” two sprightly young women in their 30s, and they are none other than Anne Washburn, the author of this script, and Anne Kauffman, who directs it.

Walking and talking the stage at Dixon Place at Chashama are an actress named Jennifer Dundas, playing playwright Washburn, and an actress named Jennifer R. Morris, playing director Kauffman––two Jennifers playing two Annes, as it happens.

And––except for a few long and vivid soliloquies, revelations of character taken directly from research sources––these two do at least as much self-examining self-exposure as the play’s Ceausescu (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Marcos (Alison Weller), Peron (Maria Striar), or Qing (Nina Hellman).

To take just one example:

Wang Guangmei [a woman who has had the effrontery to stand up to Mme. Mao]: Chairman Mao has said that we must pay attention to climate and change our clothes accordingly.

Red Guard: What Chairman Mao said refers to the political climate. And the way you stand in that respect, you will freeze to death even if you wear a fur coat.

Washburn [to Kauffman]: I’m sorry both your fish are on the ground is that cool

Kauffman: Yeah that’s okay because I just changed their water and

Washburn: Uh huh

Red Guard: Now are you going to put on that dress?

Wang Guangmei: No.

Kaufman: When you first change their water they just kind of hang out at the bottom for a while…

And so forth, throughout the play, which is a remarkable blend––or you might say mishigas––of historic fact, invented or partially invented emotion (of the Four Famed Ones), and casual on-the-spot recorded and transcribed spontaneous dialogue betwixt the Two Others, playwright and director.

One afternoon last week they sat side by side and said:

Washburn: By juxtaposing scenes where the two of us are being giddy and careless with scenes in which something quite terrible is happening…

Kauffman: …We make it known that we really don’t know what we’re playing with. Something has been unleashed––an element of fire.

Washburn: The transcribed research material ended up like this—[holding his hands 6 inches apart].

Kauffman: Make that a foot, and two and a half years. What struck me about these four women was that their backgrounds and elements of their personality were very similar. They all sort of started out from rural areas and fought their way to the big cities. Several had been performers––had backgrounds, or at least rumors, of questionable sexual practices––and all had attached themselves to very powerful men in countries that either became or were already dictatorships. Could these women wield that power in a democratic society?

Is that question answered in your play, ladies? It doesn’t seem so.

Kauffman: No, it’s not, but that’s where it started.

Washburn: The original question became a structural question. We were still trying to work out what the structure of the play was, what the meaning of the play was… The play is really how we think about these women.

Kauffman: I find myself incredibly timid in getting what I want, so I find myself very impressed with these women getting what they want in the face of so many more obstacles than I face. Making their mark. Like Imelda Marcos––

You must like shoes, I say.

Kauffman: I do actually like shoes, but I have bad feet, so I wear clogs.

Washburn: I think these women are ballsy as hell, but I find their desperation to be difficult, depressing. They’re survivors––people who have gone on from nothing, and survived. I just feel they overshot. I can’t admire them. I do judge them, but I can’t dismiss them.

Kauffman: Having somebody play you in a play is the ultimate form of flattery. It’s a great thing for our parents. It’s one thing to have your daughter playing on stage, it’s another to have her being played.

What did your mother say?

Kauffman: She came up and said, “Hope you don’t believe all that.”

In “Summit Conference,” Robert David MacDonald lets Eva Braun and Clara Petacci––and that soldier––do the talking.

Eva: My friend says the Pope is very difficult to deal with.

Clara: Pacelli? No, no. He is so worried about the Russians and being made a saint, he gives no trouble to anyone. He is also… you know… pederast.

Eva: I don’t believe it.

Clara: Of course not. You put them in prison, don’t you?

Eva: Indeed we do.

Clara: I’m surprised you still got an army.

There are no goldfish anywhere in “Summit Conference.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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