Charlotte Cushman/Songs of Love and Remembrance | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Charlotte Cushman/Songs of Love and Remembrance 

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CHARLOTTE CUSHMAN

SummerNITE
at the Theatre Building

From its opening scene--in which we see the most famous actress of the newly fledged American theater sitting in her dressing room, her memories flashing through her mind as she prepares to go onstage for what will be her last performance--Carol Wright Krause's Charlotte Cushman places us in territory made familiar through countless Hollywood bios. When Charles Macready, the reigning king of the English stage, snubs our Yankee heroine in terms that insult both her gender and her nationality, we know that before the play is over he'll get his comeuppance. When Cushman and Sallie Mercer, her devoted maidservant, debate the risks of touring in the south amid the pre-Civil War unrest of 1850, we're certain that they will both return safe. And though we never see the face on that marble bust being chiseled throughout Cushman's reminiscences, we know it's Cushman's, and that the sculptor will make a speech about how this stone will remain a lasting monument to its subject's fame, etc. There's even the obligatory parent-child confrontation in which the acclaimed artist defends the nobility of her profession to her stubborn mama--who naturally is moved to withdraw her disapproval and confess her secret pride in her daughter's accomplishments.

Krause may be forgiven the liberties she takes with history. By all accounts Cushman was an extraordinary woman whose life and times might well supply material for a score of plays: born in 1816 to a poor New England family, Cushman succeeded in forging a career as a serious actress at a time when women on the stage were expected to be more decorative than dramatic. Playing classical parts like Lady Macbeth as well as popular ones like Meg Merrilies, the gypsy woman in Guy Mannering, and even essaying trouser roles, Cushman became the toast of two continents, the first American actress to achieve international stardom. She also enjoyed several lesbian love affairs, many of them with women as renowned as she. Eventually she died of breast cancer, in 1876, but our last vision of her is of a brave professional refusing postoperative painkillers and taking the stage to play a death scene before an adoring audience.

This play is not so much a challenge to the acting skills of its cast--a mix of Equity professionals and MFA candidates from Northern Illinois University--as to their stamina. Kristine Holtvedt's brisk direction holds Cushman's story, from womb to tomb, to just under two and a half hours. The nine ensemble members play 24 characters with varying degrees of success--Isadore Geller's Abraham Lincoln has an accent disturbingly close to Elvis Presley's, but Gene Terruso and Robert C. Torri have some fine moments as Cushman's "good" and "bad" mentors respectively. As Sallie, Kava Stewartson goes well beyond facile, saintly ethnic-sidekick stereotypes to create a character so individualized and whole that my companion asked when we would see a play about her. In the marathon role of Cushman herself, Sheila Savage manages to suggest the declamatory style that would have been necessary in the huge theaters Cushman played while keeping her own performance sufficiently in check to suit the Theatre Building's 140-seat auditorium. Savage is also adept at shouldering the considerable burden of social relevance with which Krause has encumbered her protagonist: she utters modern PC-isms like "humankind" in the same breath as period expressions--Mercer is a "Negro," for instance--and somehow makes them all sound perfectly natural. Liming Tang's sets and Thomas John Bernard's costumes likewise take chronological license, but they do the job.

If Charlotte Cushman had not existed some 1993 playwright would surely have had to make her up. But she did exist, and apparently with an independence admirable in a woman of any time or culture. Superficial as Krause's play may be, it does provide a long-overdue introduction to an American figure about whom we should certainly know more.

SONGS OF LOVE AND REMEMBRANCE

at the Theatre Building

Songs of Love and Remembrance is "dedicated to those who have died of AIDS and their loved ones who survived them." Claiming his goal was "a song cycle that spoke to the audience about emotions common to us all," composer Ronald Hirsch has set to music several poems on the themes of love, yearning, passion, and loss written by such diverse authors as Walt Whitman, Joyce Carol Oates, Rumi, and himself. The sometimes startling intervals and nonrepetitive melodic lines may sound strange at first to ears more accustomed to traditional opera, but Hirsch's music contains many superb passages, complete with the hesitations suggestive of romantic uncertainty and the trills representing the triumph of renewed life.

Tenor Thomas L. Potter, playing a sky-eyed lover, has a fine vocal technique, as does mezzo-soprano Janet Aman Burton (who is not afraid to bend a glissando to better reflect the cynicism of her character). But it is baritone Dan Turek who displays not only technical competence but an expressive range and sensitivity of phrasing that reveal the poetry in both the music and the words--in particular on the exquisitely sensual "Lovedream."

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