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Our Leading Lady, at MTC's Stage II

In Our Leading Lady, a farce with a heart that beats to long-ago rhythms, Charles Busch dramatizes one of the most dramatic events in American history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865. His very interesting strategy is to turn the tables on us: we see things from the point of view of the theatrical company that was performing Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre that night. The real drama, of course, is the effect that the offstage gunshot has on the career of Laura Keene, the company's leading lady, who has been scheming like made to take over the management of Ford's.

Our Leading Lady is an ingenious entertainment. I am tempted to compare it to an elaborate fountain fed by mountain springs and capacious aqueducts, for never, I think, can a comedy have been so effortlessly powered by dramatic irony. We know from the start what the characters, especially Laura Keene (Kate Mulgrew), don't know, and all Mr Busch has to do to tickle the audience is, say, to have his leading lady finish a denunciation of the Booth family with the self-satisfied reassurance that they won't push her over the brink of disaster a third time. We roared. Because of course that's just what John Wilkes Booth is going to do to her.

Unaware that she is in a rowboat headed for a waterfall, Keene berates her colleagues while secretly planning to replace them all as soon as she gets control of the theatre - an imminent development, she believes, sure to take place once it's known that the President has seen her performance. There are five other actors in the troupe, leading man Harry Hawk (Maxwell Caulfield); the somewhat ill-assorted Gavin de Chamblay (Reed Birney) and his wife, Verbena (Kristine Nielsen); Maud Bentley (Barbara Bryne), whose career has stretched for sixty years; and Clementine Smith (Amy Rutberg), a former child star who has remained on the stage faute de mieux. Ms Mulgrew, exploiting the world-class Katharine Hepburn accent that she perfected for a one-woman show a few seasons back, sings, sighs, and sneers her way through her role, making the point that Keene usually comes out on top simply because she throws herself into the act with more vehemence than anyone else can muster. Her principal victim is Verbena, which was great fun for me because I've been crazy about Kristine Nielsen ever since last year's Based on a Totally True Story. Her Verbena is shrewd but easily distracted, and she is almost always cross about Laura Keene. And her vision has it's limits; it's clear that she's never going to find out why her husband is so eager to give the stagehand, W J Ferguson (Billy Wheelan), free acting lessons.

Laura has a maid/personal assistant who goes by the name of Madame Wu-Chan (Ann Duquesnay). In this character, whom I suspect Mr Busch invented, the playwright has given us a fine drag act, for Madame Wu-Chan, despite her elaborate coiffure and strange pidgin, is obviously a black woman. The act does not go on for too long; soon the former slave reveals herself to Laura. The joke here is that Laura has been far too self-absorbed to look closely at a servant; now that she thinks about it, she wonders if the woman has a Chinese father. The relationship between the actress and her dresser plays stirring variations on venerable backstage themes before resolving in a firm alliance.

In the aftermath of the assassination, comedy is appropriately set aside for a spell, and the actors deal with the consequences. Laura tries to help the wounded President but is asked to leave by Mary Todd Lincoln, effectively blamed for having lured her husband to his death. She wanders the streets; she is accosted by a policeman; she has become a pariah. As for the others, although they are perfectly innocent in our eyes, their being actors at all makes them suspect in the eyes of an Army investigator, Major Hopwood (J R Horne). The Major soon comes to find them even more exasperating than they are fishy, however, and his attempts to get a straight story out of Gavin de Chamblay lifts the clouds from the laughter. 

Lynne Meadow deserves extra points for working out a conception of Mr Busch's old-fashioned farce suitable to the thrust stage at Stage II. The members of the cast are very much on the same page tonally and able to create the illusion of a seasoned ensemble. Santo Loquasto (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes), and Brian MacDevitt (lighting) all intensify Mr Busch's enthusiastic embrace of the fustian of Victorian theatre, and Scott Lehrer's music is suitably astringent. (April 2007)

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