There aren’t many places a Venezuelan government official would be applauded by the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but Gala Theatre brings together strange bedfellows. In this instance, it’s for Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott’s ribald dramatization—bordering on farce—of the rivalry between two onetime giants of the cosmetics business, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.
Ott’s play is surprisingly engaging for an otherwise obscure subject (with no particular Latino connection, Gala’s usual niche; the play is in Spanish with English surtitles). Today, Rubinstein’s and Arden’s legacies persist in much reduced form, their products relegated to the outer wings of Macy’s beauty department by bigger names like Estée Lauder and L’Oréal. The latter now owns Rubinstein’s line, and while Arden’s company still exists under new ownership, it’s moved more into the celebrity fragrance market, with smells from Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, and Taylor Swift. But a century ago, the two were the undisputed leaders of an industry they had largely built from scratch. Rubinstein took skin creams from hospital burn wards to every mall in the world, using aggressive marketing, value-based pricing, and dubious scientific claims to perfect the great formula of American capitalism—scaring insecure people into buying something they don’t need. Arden made makeup, associated at the time with prostitutes, respectable for the ruling class and developed new marketing techniques like in-store makeovers.
They also hated each other’s guts, and Ott and director Consuelo Trum draw terrific humor from this vicious contest with performances by Ana Verónica Muñoz and Luz Nicolás. Whether or not they are true to life (the two women never actually met in person, but the play invents such an encounter), their characterizations are perfect foils for one another: Muñoz, as Rubinstein, is alternately haughty, paranoid, and driven to social climbing by her estrangement from her Jewish-Polish parents who couldn’t quite fathom having a business magnate for a daughter. Nicolás, one of the most consistently electrifying actors in D.C. theater, plays Arden as some kind of mad banshee, crawling over the stage and shrieking obscenities about her rival. Both are gleefully vulgar, Arden’s insults seasoned with a reflexive anti-Semitism, which got her in bed with the Nazis in the ’30s.
The historical settings, spanning turn-of-the-century Poland to Australia, Paris, and 1960s New York, are not quite as evocative as the trash-talking. The World War II scenes are a perfunctory detour into now-we’re-being-serious territory that doesn’t jibe with the rest of the play’s slapstick, or even with the World War I–era scenes of Rubinstein and Arden taunting each other over the backs of chairs in an irreverent allusion to trench warfare. Their real-life interactions with artists and authors such as Hemingway, Matisse, Picasso, and Proust get passing mention (mostly played for laughs about Rubinstein’s ignorance of those she patronized); so does their role in the women’s suffrage movement, including one of Arden’s more notable marketing schemes, organizing a voting rights march that doubled as an advertisement for her lipstick.
The simple stage design of paired desks and doors (Arden’s in her trademark red) doesn’t offer much sense of time or place, but is supplemented by black-and-white projections of the actors being filmed in real time, illustrating Ott’s framing device: an end-of-life interview with the two women by a beleaguered reporter played by Cecilia De Feo.
Señorita y Madame isn’t much of a history lesson, or a business lesson, though it touches on everything from the rise of fascism to the rise of modern advertising (with some wry observations by Arden on the intersection of the two). It can be seen as a feminist allegory, from a kind of Beyoncé, CEO-as-feminist-icon perspective. But it’s more of a cautionary tale than a celebration: two of the first self-made millionaire women whose personal squabbles blinded them to the Charles Revsons, Max Factors, and other male corporate competitors who would eventually overtake and absorb the empires they created.
3333 14th St. NW. (202) 234-7174. $20–$42. galatheatre.org.