Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: The Rise and Fall of a Brazen Star, or the Pope Show

The backstory of a celebrity can be fascinating. What and who made them the person we know and love. The journey to stardom is an ever-changing road, especially for someone who constantly changed their identity. In Trav S.D.’s Horseplay: or The Fickle Mistress, a Protean Picaresque, the life and times of Adah Isaacs Menken, a star much ahead of her time, is explored in a way only fitting to her.
Horseplay tells a story of a star from a theatrical time that is oft forgotten. In the height of 19th century, a star by the name of Adah Isaacs Menken was born. The woman who may be partially to thank for the start of burlesque was a public figure that was filled with mystery. In Trav S.D.’s telling of her life, the script explores the incredible people she met, the places she went, and the stories she would tell to fit in. One of the most incredible themes within the script is the theme of identity. Menken was a shape shifter who changed her faith, ethnicity, and occupation just to suit the needs of her surroundings. Her unbelievable life can fill pages upon pages of books. In Horseplay, it seemed as if all of those pages and pages were used. Menken’s story is intricate and interesting with so much to tell, but the script is filled with so much excess material. With the excessive material, there is room to shrink and still be able to tell this fascinating story. The evening felt long but that could be of course due to the theatrical nature of the staging.
photo courtesy of James Eden
It takes a star to play a star. And Molly Pope is a star. Pope filled the giant Ellen Stewart stage with great ease. Pope was put through the gauntlet of emotion and character and never once did she falter. To play a character that creates so many identities, it can be possible to lose the core persona, but Pope maintained Adah’s integrity through transformation. The pieces within Adah’s world were played by an ensemble that tried their best. Tiffany Abercrombie and Mark St. Cyr did a great job in their supporting roles. Abercrombie was thrown into an assortment of whacky characters including Alexander Dumas and each time she was a joy. St. Cyr's highlight came as Adah's boxer hubby.
Tackling the behemoth that is the Ellen Stewart Theater is a challenging undertaking. Finding a way to fill the space is a necessity. With props, costumes, and personnel on stage, the ambiance had a very theatrical set up. It evoked the spirit of the times. The conceit is smart and fits the world of the piece. However director Elyse Singer seemed to pay very little attention to the distractions the wings caused. The Ellen Stewart stage is massive. But if an actor stagehand had to get to the other side for a prop, costume, entrance, or scene shift, a simple cross behind the action downstage drew attention away and toward the movement and possibly to the busywork offstage. Even the simplistic thing of not having the stagehands in period garb was a distraction. The scene shifts were a clutter and took up valuable time. Singer told Adah’s story but didn’t guide the design team as well. The theatrical vocabulary drew many dramaturgical questions, from the exceptionally modern items on the landscape scroll to the inclusion of “Eye of the Tiger” and the “Benny Hill Theme” as transition music. Why these nonexistent items were included in the 19th century is questionable. The set designed by Liz Toonkel was a mixed bag of perfect and upsetting. When you walk in, it seems clear that the space was decked out to evoke the spirit of the world. As scenic elements made appearances, it seemed as if they were never finished or the only things that could be found. The most blaring were the rolling platform that formed the bed and the mismatched broken chairs. Despite the many highs the set produced, the lows took away from it.
The story of Adah Isaacs Menken is one all should know. She’s a name you don’t want to forget. Sadly Horseplay doesn’t do this woman justice. With so many technical missteps, it’s unfortunate for Adah  and her counterpart. Pope carried Horseplay on her back. Without her, it’s possible the piece, like Mazeppa, may have burned in a fiery inferno.