Kit Steinkellner’s new play “Ladies” presents itself initially as a stylized period piece about women’s empowerment.
At Boston Court Pasadena, four actresses walk onstage in beige bras and panties, then proceed to dress themselves in elaborate 18th century undergarments: black stockings, white corsets and hoop skirts. High-heeled lace-up white booties complete the look, which could be described as Laura Ashley bondage.
At least they seem to be having a good time, dancing to rock songs they choose with a remote control. The audience isn’t, maybe, having as much fun — playwrights often overestimate our interest in watching costume changes. But if we have read the program, we know that what is to come might be less lively still: a drama about the Bluestocking Society (sometimes called the Bluestocking Circle), women who met to discuss art and philosophy in a “parlor room revolution” beginning in 1750.
As promised, the actresses go on to assume the roles of Elizabeth Montagu (Meghan Andrews), the society’s founder, poet Elizabeth Carter (Carie Kawa), painter Angelica Kauffman (Tracey A. Leigh) and novelist Frances Burney (Jully Lee). In a deconstructed parlor — random items of white furniture on a blood-red floor — they sip tea and lament the plight of the female artist. They have British accents and old-timey manners. They often press their hands to their breasts to suggest the burning desire for self-expression therein.
Then something unexpected happens: Sliding on a pair of glasses with thick red frames, Montagu walks to the edge of the stage and addresses the audience directly. Her accent disappears. She has morphed into Kit Steinkellner, the contemporary American playwright, who is breaking the fourth wall to explain why she has written this play. What the Bluestockings mean to her, and why she has taken so many liberties with their story — condensing time and space, conflating events, combining dozens of women into four and spicing their lives up with sex scenes from her imagination.
“These women haunt me,” she says. But in fact they seem to be possessed by her: Each actress interrupts the narrative in turn to put on the Steinkellner glasses and share a little more of the Steinkellner persona.
At first, she’s a witty, candid narrator. We have no idea whether William Shakespeare felt bad about not following Holinshed to the letter or misrepresenting Plutarch. In contrast, Steinkellner lets us in on all her behind-the-scenes self-doubts. Who is she, after all, to tell the Bluestockings’ story? “I am not particularly interesting,” she declares. She’s also an “aggressively bad” historian, who leaves out facts that contradict her argument.
And her argument — which boils down to a claim that men in the 18th century treated women like furniture and weren’t satisfying sexual partners — is itself a bit simplistic, and she knows it, but she’s not going to feel bad about it, because “history is written by the winners, and I want to be a winner.” Her overall message seems to be that it’s just as hard to be a female artist today as it was in the 18th century — but while they were fighting the system, we, having internalized all the misogyny of human history, are fighting ourselves.
It’s easy to see why Jessica Kubzansky — one of L.A.’s most daring directors of women’s writing — chose to develop “Ladies,” the hit of Boston Court’s New Play Reading Festival last year. But a text that must have seemed quirky and playful in a reading has gone limp and labored onstage. Steinkellner’s regular interruptions of narration quickly become trying. Not only do they call into question the veracity of the Bluestocking story line but they also progressively drain it of interest. It’s hard to feel sympathy for characters you are repeatedly reminded are not real.
Even Steinkeller’s self-deprecation comes to feel manipulative. “Yes, you are interesting, and you do have every right to reshape history” becomes the only socially appropriate response to her constant denials. It’s like 90 minutes of “Does this play make me look fat?”
The four appealing actresses do their best to bring the characters to life. They generously give themselves over to sex scenes that must have been difficult to rehearse with straight faces. They find moments of humor and irony in the dialogue. Their warm performances assure us that there is a promising dramatic sensibility somewhere behind all this script’s meta-theatrical posturing. And the production, if a slog, does spark curiosity about the Bluestockings and their proto-feminism.
Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 30
Info: (626) 683-6801 or BostonCourtPasadena.org
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes