Grrrl power anyone? If you’re looking for proof that situation comedy hath no fury like a woman scorned, you’ll find evidence aplenty this week: A wife outmaneuvering the backroom boys politicking for her adulterous hubby in State of the Union; a wronged proto-feminist besting the world’s greatest seducer in Stripping Don Juan.
The former comedy is directed by a woman, the latter is written by one, and if you can find an admirable male in either, you’re one up on me. Union’s men are backstabbing gossips, Don Juan’s are preening himbos. It’s their femmes who have balls, call shots, and walk with swagger.
And swaggering can’t be easy in 5-inch heels, which is what costumer Wade Laboissonniere has clad diminutive Ellen Karas in for State of the Union, a 1946 Pulitzer winner best remembered for its Hollywood incarnation as a Tracy/Hepburn vehicle directed by Frank Capra. Where Hepburn famously wore flats so she wouldn’t tower over her co-star, Karas’ neglected Mary Matthews needs a bit of a boost to engage Jim Abele’s smooth-talking Grant Matthews eye-to-eye. He’s backbone-challenged, but he’s no pipsqueak, which may be why Karas seems to be having so much fun cutting him down to size.
Mary’s the one with common sense in this election-season fable, urging her hubby to ignore the politicos who’re positioning him for a White House run, and as she struts around in those power heels (and some snazzy copper and gold gowns), there’s never any real question who’s in charge. Authors Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse gave Mary a zinger or three (“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if you took off that stuffed shirt?”), but you get the impression that Karas hardly needs them. She knows how to circle an opponent until he feels surrounded and then flatten him with a smile. Smart cookie, this one.
The production’s other women are hardly slouches either—Martha Hackett, brittle and poised as a manipulative newspaper editor; Naomi Jacobson, furiously pushing an immigrant-vote agenda; and especially Nancy Robinette as a hilariously boozy political wife who teaches Mary the joys of a properly slung Sazerak Sling. Together, they run rings around the hapless Republican operatives who think they’re running the show.
Note that the authors, writing at the tail end of the New Deal, made their politicos Republican so they’d be persuasive underdogs, which doesn’t quite fly today. Kyle Donnelly’s staging for Ford’s Theatre acknowledges that fact by surrounding the playing area with TV screens and, during scene changes, filling them with montages of political ads championing everyone from Ike to Dukakis, Tricky Dick to Slick Willie, thereby broadening the satirical spray a bit. It’s a smart ploy, even if the observation that politics hasn’t really changed in 60 years of politicking is only marginally more profound than the play’s sugary notions about crusading populists.
Happily, there’s some academic fun to be had in hearing 1945 realpolitik (“there won’t be a United Nations if America’s the only prosperous nation in a starving world”) sounding fresh six decades later. Still, anyone tempted to celebrate their political prescience might first want to analyze the evening’s biggest laugh. It comes at the end of a room-service order for hamburger steaks that concludes with the words, “one with onions, two without, and whatever goes with it…except spinach.” Up until three weeks ago, that last phrase had never rated more than a mild chuckle. Today, it’s a haymaker, and not because Russel and Crouse were food-safety soothsayers.
That said, if the play depends heavily on serendipity, and a certain blandness in its political observations, the production is pointed and pointedly first-rate. I’ve been absentmindedly redirecting shows in my head lately when what’s onstage isn’t quite working—picturing a nonglacial Frankenstein, a Cabaret with a femcee, a My Fair Lady with sleeves—but I can’t imagine reimagining a moment in Donnelly’s State of the Union.
Gala Hispanic Theatre’s Stripping Don Juan (the Spanish title is Valor, Agravio y Mujer) represents a bolder sort of feminist politics, having been penned by a woman at a time when women were expected to be decorative rather than expressive and featuring a heroine who disguises herself as a man.
Ana Caro Mallén de Soto, a poet and playwright who was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, was clearly intent on upending Spanish Golden Age notions of honor, class, art, and gender in her tale of a spurned woman, Leonora, who adopts male attire and calls herself Leonardo so she can exact revenge on a lover who abandoned her. Her lover’s name was Don Juan, and she follows him to Brussels, where she discovers he’s wooing Estela, and manages to insert herself (as Leonardo) between them. Leonora then hatches a complicated scheme involving her own brother (who happens to both live in the area and be in love with Estela), a vain prince (who’s just there to provide additional complications), and a raft of servants who have their own romantic complications. Between the Leonardo/Leonora shenanigans, and a pair of simultaneous midnight-balcony assignations involving mistaken identities—think Romeo and Juliet meets Cyrano de Bergerac—there’s plenty of plot. If you get lost, however, fear not, for none of it really makes much of sense.
As if convoluted plotting weren’t enough for an audience to deal with, Stripping Don Juan is also about Golden Age literary affectations. Not only is it written in verse (with in-jokes about women having the gall to write poetry and comedy), but it also has poetic orations on the nature of love, of honor, and of fidelity. Don Juan woos his conquests with flowery protestations, and Leonora uses even more ornate language to outwit him in a series of verbal duels. All of which glorious longwindedness means that the play sometimes feels as if it’s been conceived as a sort of soliloquy-slam.
Those whose grasp of Spanish is anything less than fluent will therefore need to spend much of the evening with eyes glued to a surtitle screen near the lighting grid (easier to see if you’re seated toward the back). But with jokes that aren’t exactly knee-slappers, close attention may not be the wisest strategy.
The visuals are as lovely as they have been for most of Gala’s productions since the troupe moved into its new Columbia Heights home. Martin Schnellinger’s costumes are cheerfully colorful, Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s painted landscapes with cutout doors and windows offer a modernist touch, especially when one cutout rolls forward as if it were a giant file drawer to provide a staircase. And there is some snappy swordplay, with Leo/Leo (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) proving an able swordswoman, as well as some spirited roughhousing among servants. As nearly as I could tell (with eyes mostly averted to the surtitles) the performances seemed fine.
All of which helps Hugo Medrano’s staging make a decent case for Stripping Don Juan, though in its American premiere, both play and production feel more competent than inspired. Those dueling balcony scenes, for instance, seem a virtual invitation to a director and designers to do something really clever—maybe rig up back-to-back balconies, punctuate punch lines with cinematic blackouts, or employ snappy spotlighting to delineate who’s talking to whom as wooers crisscross.
But there I go, doing my redirecting thing again. No one at Gala seems intent on that sort of flimflammery—which is perhaps more suited to Shakespeare anyway, and might well amount to gilding an already ornate lily. The scenes need something, however, for at present they’re playing a bit sedately and without a lot of comic fizz.CP