“I think there’s something about monstrous women that’s fascinating. The villainesses. Villainesses are fantastic. We don’t see enough of them.” So said Moira Buffini in my conversation with her in my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. I have been thinking about that line a good deal lately.
Partially because Moira’s own play, Handbagged (which is in the final days of its run in New York at 59e59th Street), offers such a vivid example of what she described in her depiction of Margaret Thatcher. The play is about the tension between Queen Elizabeth II and Thatcher. Though Buffini has little use for royalty generally, Elizabeth is depicted as having a genuine concern for the people and uses her position to try to offset Thatcherism whenever she can. (Moira tells me that she spent a fair amount of time and effort researching this, so the play has a grounding in reality.) Audiences seem not to be able to get enough of Elizabeth. In addition to Moira, Peter Morgan has written a hit film, a hit play and a hit TV series about her, and Alan Bennett wrote a play and a short novel about her. Still, in Handbagged, it’s Thatcher who constantly steals focus. The queen is decent and empathetic. Thatcher is appalling. No contest.
I’m beginning this post from Chicago, where I packed my schedule with theatre. Two shows which particularly excited me were at a wonderful theatre complex in Wicker Park called The Den. Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places concerns a brother and sister trying to cope with the emergency that is their aging parents’ marriage. Michael John LaChiusa’s Queen of the Mist is about a woman who, at 63 in 1901, climbed into a barrel, tumbled over Niagara Falls … and survived but didn’t get the payoff she expected. Four Places’ Peggy and Queen’s Annie are both big, self-dramatizing characters who would exhaust and enfuriate you in real life, but onstage they compel. They are played by two performers I’ve had the pleasure of following for decades of Chicago glory – Meg Thalken and Barbara E. Robertson. Their work is the equal of the performances that were recently given Tonys and Drama Desks in New York. Indeed, if Robertson had been nominated against the slate of “best actress in a musical” nominees, I wouldn’t have hesitated to give her my vote, and it would have been a toss-up for me between Thalken and Elaine May for “best actress.”
But they have platforms created by Johnson and LaChiusa: parts that tap into big emotions and give us women who show no regret about overstepping the traditional boundaries of behavior usually assigned to female characters.
One of the ironies of the historical moment we’re in is that, with all of the attention paid to women in contemporary society, so many dramatists (of both genders) have chosen to depict women as victims rather than the driving forces of stories. Much of our national conversation lately has been about the wretched behavior of men, and the recent season reflected this by giving us a parade of thugs, bullies, killers, narcissists and cheats. Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird stood out because he was the rare well-meaning (if initially naive) man who strove to do the right thing. The women in many of these plays had to defend themselves from the guys.
Not that that’s the whole picture. Three of the six women nominated for 2019 Tony Awards for leading actress played driven, dynamic characters in scripts new to Broadway. All three were drawn from life – Laurie Metcalf as an alternate version of Hillary Clinton in Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, Janet McTeer as Sara Bernhardt in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, and Heidi Schreck as herself in her own script, What the Constitution Means to Me. Clinton has made a career out of vaulting over barriers, Rebeck’s version of Bernhardt is both a sexual and an artistic rebel, and Schreck’s show is predicated on defying political and personal convention.
A few other women got to play what Janet McTeer termed “baddasses.” In Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge, Marin Ireland played a school teacher with rage issues in a halfway house, and in Sharr White’s The True, Edie Falco played a hard-driving political operative working behind-the-scenes (as a woman had to) in Albany in 1977. They were two of the season’s most vivid performances, and, if they weren’t quite the villainesses Moira Buffini relishes, they assaulted boundaries with gusto.
And I guess I’m hoping for more. While it’s important to pay attention to those who have been treated badly, there is a special pleasure in watching Edward Albee’s Martha, Tennessee Williams’s Blanche, Tracy Letts’s Vi, Lillian Hellman’s Regina and Gypsy’s Mama Rose let loose and remind us that bad behavior is not limited to one gender. Even as these characters sometimes appall us, they are pretty damn entertaining.