nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
May 16, 2005
There are many things to like about Madame Killer, the second of three plays in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival. Among them are the historic story behind the drama, the structure of the script, most of the performances, the ambitious costumes, and the simple yet effective sets. The rapid pace, alone, might be the most ambitious part of the whole production, as director Wier Harmon presses the cast to keep the story moving at lightning pace and the sets moving seamlessly between scenes.
The story tracks four characters whose paths cross with a notorious New York abortionist, popularly known as Madame Killer. Hannah, a poor African American, and Nuala, a poverty stricken Irish immigrant, earn their pittance from one of Madame Killer’s gambling sidelines, female boxing. With the help of Madame Killer, Hannah discards all traces of poverty and sets up a profitable dressmaker’s shop for the smart set. In return, Hannah refers a steady stream of rich clientele to Madame Killer. One of these clients is Vicky, a one-time prostitute who fights her way in to respectability by marrying Wolver, a slippery man whose unchecked ambitions will fit nicely into Tammany Hall once he acquires the necessary accoutrements—wife, children, and a fancy apartment on the Vanderbilts' block of Fifth Avenue. He desperately wants children, mostly out of jealousy for his brother and his brood. But Vicky, irreparably harmed by Madame Killer’s stitchery, cannot bear children. Of course, Wolver doesn’t know this. Vicky employs Hannah to design a garment that expands monthly, and strikes a deal with Madame Killer to adopt one of the babies that would otherwise be aborted. The opportunity comes swiftly after the poor Irish girl Nuala is raped. Nuala refuses to carry her baby to term, but changes her mind when Madame Killer offers her what Nuala thinks is an enormous amount of money. The story packs a punch, and while it takes place in 1878, the drama seems very relevant to today’s heated pro-life/choice political debate, demonstrating how the legal system does nothing for the abstinence argument, rather it forces both rich and poor to seek back alleys.
Maria Porter as Madame Killer grabs the stage with the calm and authority of someone who knows exactly what her character is about. The other characters never sail far from her pier in pursuing their ambitions, and by the end of the play they are securely tethered to her dock. Her little black book assures that.
Aedin Moloney distinguishes herself as Nuala, filling the stage with energy and fight. Assuming a nearly indecipherable Irish brogue, she makes her intentions quite clear. In one emotional tirade, she accuses Madame Killer, who is helping her learn proper English, of taking everything she has. Pointing to her mouth, she says “Dublin lives in here” and she refuses further English lessons. It is one of the most poignant moments of the play. Moloney’s thin frame and shaggy hair give her the necessary impoverished look, particularly next to Porter’s healthy, solid frame.
Mark Shanahan delivers a salacious Wolver. He adds complexity to the role with a final rage so authentic that the audience actually gasps. Marsha Stephanie Blake transitions nicely into the dressmaker from a female boxer. Her beautiful costume, by Katherine Hampton Noland, contributes considerably. Melinda Wade also gains her footing as Vicky after a weak opening scene.
The play opens with Vicky and Wolver striking a marriage deal. However, before we know this, questions arise. Wade speaks with a Southern drawl, a bad one. Does she mean to dupe Wolver? Let the audience in on her plot? Soon we learn that they are both ambitious and without scruples. This should be clear up front. Also, certain details don’t add up. If Vicky hopes to reach the top, she will, at least minimally, have to stand up straight and brush her hair. After all, this is 1878, and the women wear sweeping gowns with corsets, stays, and plenty of crinolines. Wade becomes more credible in her role once her character acquires riches. While the story gets off to a slow start, the play quickly redeems itself.
The parallel structure of the play, written by Honour Kane with Diana Kane, contributes to the complexity of the story. Two characters appear, and then two more until the lives of the characters are inextricably interwoven. The scenes are an exercise in efficiency. Susan Barras creates the needed ambience for a parlor, a backroom, and an outdoor carriage ride, each with a single prop: a bed, a desk, and two connecting chairs. It works beautifully, because each one slides on and off the stage before the audience is aware of it, and because Paul Whitaker’s lighting is precise and right on cue. Noland’s costumes add depth and keep the story grounded in the 19th century. There is an extravagant mix of colors and textures in the full, floor-length day dresses. They contrast nicely with the restraint used in Madame Killer’s attire and in the worn sweater favored by Nuala. Paul Loesel’s piano compositions reinforce time and place and add emotional intensity to the scenes. Jonathan Rose is at piano.
Director Wier Harman delivers this unusual drama with impeccable pace. There is no time for yawning—not that you would want to. He delivers a vivid period piece that holds the audience until the actors take their bows.