Review: In Kirsten Vangsness’ ‘Cleo, Theo & Wu,’ past and future speak to the present — but what are they saying?

A contemporary woman is tutored by female predecessors throughout history, among them Cleopatra, Byzantine Empress Theodora and Tang dynasty Empress Wu.

As a one-sentence pitch, Kirsten Vangsness’ new play “Cleo, Theo & Wu” sounds terrific, calling to mind Caryl Churchill’s resonant “Top Girls.”

A good idea is only as good as its execution, however.

The piece sets out to explore social and psychological factors that have limited women’s true potential through time immemorial. Vangsness has a highly idiosyncratic mind, so the results, presented at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood, can be amusing. The writing, however, is scattered and formless to the point of incoherency, and the staging under Lisa Dring’s direction, while imaginative, doesn’t manage to give the material much momentum.


Vangsness retains her roots as a stage performer and writer while navigating TV celebrity as “Criminal Minds’” technical analyst Penelope Garcia. She performed at NOTE in her plays “Potential Space” and “Mess,” drawing especially positive response for “Potential Space’s” fresh perspectives and scandalous humor.

She appears here in the central role of Lucy, a present-day working woman.

In the story’s off-kilter first few moments, women from history carry the unconscious Lucy into the playing area, arguing among themselves about how best to “birth” her into an evolved life. Lucy is only passingly lucid, so we don’t get to know much about her before the next scene whooshes us into a future in which technologically advanced men have done away with women entirely.

When we finally begin to be introduced to Lucy, she is writing furiously in a journal, her thoughts flying in too many directions for her — or us — to make sense of them.

The piece comes across almost like improv comedy: streams of consciousness veering this way and that, desperately trying to steer toward some sort of resolution. Then again, improv players wouldn’t use speech this fragmented and idiosyncratic, all topsy-turvy, following few of the normal rules of grammar, full of odd metaphors (much of it apparently meant to evoke past- or future-speak, of which there is a lot). Nor would their tone be so heightened and nonrepresentational.

The production team provides an appropriately spacey atmosphere: a star-dotted cosmos rendered in wall art and projections surrounding a playing area carved in rings, like crop circles (scenic design by Eli Smith, projections by Sam Clevenger). And the future-men look intriguingly otherworldly in shimmery gold puffer coats and floor-length, pleated skirts (costumes by Stephanie Petagno).

Vangsness is amusingly self-deprecating as Lucy. Her mind races a mile a minute behind her bewildered exterior whether at work, where she’s disrespected by a male underling; at home, where her boyfriend flies into insecure rages, then coerces her into shame-sex; or in the far reaches of time, to which the now-joined forces of past and future carry her.

She and the 12 other cast members draw laughs, though more for their delivery than the lines themselves, and the piece does arrive, toward the end, at a moment of powerful insight. But for most of the long, strange trip there, we watch in puzzlement, itching for moments of clarity that might help us answer our own questions about what led the world to its current state and what lessons might have been learned from women if only history hadn’t all but written them out of the narrative.

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‘Cleo, Theo & Wu’

Where: Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 8

Tickets: $20 and $25

Info: (323) 856-8611,

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Twitter: @darylhmiller