Woodhull: A Play About the Woman Who Ran for President
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
August 9, 2008
Victoria Woodhull led a truly astonishing life and making a play out of it is a terrific idea. But to make a biographical play work is a tricky business. You need to decide which facts make good theatre and which don't serve the play. Too often biographical playmakers fall a little too in love with their research and this is unfortunately the case with Woodhull, as presented by Elephant Ensemble in FringeNYC, which—despite a strong performance by Katherine Barron in the title role—seems more focused on historical details than dramatic direction.
Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States. From the play I learned that she grew up in a family that ran a traveling medicine show, was married off young for money, divorced, worked as a prostitute, published a newspaper, worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street, and when she was 33 ran for president against Grant in 1872—yes, ran for president while women were still fighting for the right to vote. Her platform centered on women's rights and the radical notion of free love. The play begins with her giving a speech from the front of the stage as if we in the audience were at the convention. The press are aghast that she is openly living in sin with a Colonel. Her sister Tennessee (a childlike and slavishly adoring supporter) is sleeping with Commodore Vanderbilt as part of his arrangement with Victoria to fund her campaign. A slew of famous suffragists are also in the mix, torn over whether to embrace this brilliant firebrand or denounce her. What a foundation for juicy theatre, right? Not so fast.
Unfortunately this play too often felt like looking into a moving diorama at a museum. Though there were exceptions, many of the 18 actors in the cast declaimed their lines at each other with little actual communication. Attempts to make this history lesson more theatrical, such as using the audience as part of the convention hall, employing flashbacks, and overlapping scenes, generally fell flat. Often the most potentially dramatic moments in the play are thrown away by splitting Victoria between two scenes at once. This odd convention, for example, had her breaking up with the Colonel and having an unrelated conversation with her sister at the same time. So I found myself, repeatedly, just on the brink of being drawn in only to be distracted by something else happening at the same time and missing half the dialogue of a moment I had almost cared about.
Those frustrations aside, it must be reiterated that Barron is terrific as Victoria Woodhull. It is ironic that the character who has the most speeches and propaganda to spout is the most believable human in the whole play. Between playwright Liza Lentini's treatment of this character and Barron's brilliant playing of her, I got a fascinating, multi-dimensional portrait of this amazing woman. Victoria is scary-smart, tough, heroic, brave, and irresistibly charismatic. But as the play wears on, we also see her hypocrisy, her manipulation of the people she loves, her arrogance, and her self-doubt. There are other welcome moments of life and breath in the performances of Bern Cohen as Victoria's father, Hugh Sinclair as Vanderbilt, and Carla Briscoe as Susan B. Anthony. Yet overall this is a disappointing treatment of a life that could have made riveting theatre. But those period costumes sure are impressive!