Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
And now for something completely different: Sex at Ventfort Hall!
I know that those venerable walls have seen plenty of hanky-panky over the past century or so, but somehow those massive great “cottages” seem as sterile and uptight as the prim and proper, tightly corseted, buttoned-up exterior their nineteenth century builders and owners wished to project.
Over the past eight years, Shakespeare & Company has teamed with Ventfort Hall Mansion and Museum of the Gilded Age to present annual one-woman shows set in the period when the mansion was in its hey-day. The so-called Gilded Age (1865-1901) in America was anything but dull and the Morgans who built Ventfort Hall were well connected to interesting people locally, nationally and internationally. Every year I knew the show at Ventfort Hall would introduce me to a fascinating woman whose impact on history had been, like most women’s contributions, egregiously overlooked.
You may not be aware but museum’s programming, even what they sell in their gift shop, must be “mission related.” Thus the shows at Ventfort Hall have been very, very laced-up and proper. How to unlace and present a one-woman, mission-related play with sex appeal? Commission Juliane Hiam to write it.
Hiam, is a Berkshire native, a wife and mother (her married name, which she sometimes uses in conjunction with Hiam, is Scribner), and a successful screenwriter and columnist (under the pen name of Jacoozi), and a budding playwright and novelist. Early this year she was the featured reader at WordPlay, the monthly reading series I host for Inkberry at Papyri Books, where she read from her forthcoming novel “The Cum Laude Girls” (yes, the title is the awful and obscene pun it appears to be.) And I had done my homework and checked out her Web site BimboPolitics.com. And yet the first sentence she read still floored me.
Hiam writes boldly about sexuality – male as well as female, although she has made her mark on the distaff side. Apparently it is still amazing to the world at large that women like sex. Having been a woman all my life, I can’t help but marvel at how dumb humankind has always been on this topic, but I understand the patriarchal need to suppress and control women’s sexual appetites and reproductive lives in order to perpetuate the male line in an orderly manner.
Hiam’s writing is very funny, and very bawdy. Two of her five characters in this summer's Ventfort offering, Paris 1890, Unlaced are courtesans to, and a third is the wife of, the same Marquis. Some of them wear more clothing than others. If you loved the laced up ladies of Ventfort Hall and are uncomfortable with frank discussion of sex, this show will be quite a shock to your system. But for the more unlaced among you, Paris 1890, Unlaced is a delightful romp, directed with panache by Sarah Taylor and played with gusto by the talented Anne Undeland.
One of Hiam’s characters informs us that just as the Eskimos have many words for snow, so the French have many different words for the English term “prostitute.” But there is an ocean of difference between a courtesan and the type of paid sex worker we mean when we say prostitute. A courtesan was a woman of education, refinement, and power – financially independent and openly welcomed into the ranks of high society. To draw a parallel to an earlier Ventfort Hall production, when George Dennison Morgan, son of the builders of the Hall, married a popular Gion Geisha known here as Morgan O-Yuki, she was welcomed in France, where she lived out her days following Morgan’s death, but shunned in America.
My only real disappoint with this play is that none of the characters are historical figures. There were certainly women very like this in Paris during La Belle Époque and using their real-life stories would have made this play truly perfect. But Hiam had her own specific fantasy to weave, and no one historical woman would have fit the bill.
Hiam begins and ends her play in a “little Gilded Age museum” where the harried Executive Director, Juliet, displays to her Board of Trustees (the audience) two exciting new acquisitions – a poster and a gown from Paris in 1890. There are mysteries to be unraveled – who wore the gown when and where, and just who is the untraceable Duc de Foix mentioned on the poster? In the course of the play, during which we meet La Crème (short for the French for cream puff), a 40-something courtesan in a long-standing relationship with a Marquis she calls Le Chef (she is his cream puff and he is her pastry chef, get it?); his wife ‘Hettie;’ an ambitious cockney can-can dancer who performs as La Vierge (The Virgin); and a knowing chapelier (hat maker) who all three of Le Chef’s women employ. The chapelier has an extended conversation with an unseen American tourist named Gertrude Snow, who, it turns out, has some connection back to Juliet’s “little Gilded Age museum.” A neat package, neater than any real-life story could ever be.
Undeland is at her best as the outrageous Vierge, an irrepressible young woman of great spirit and few brains, and as the wily Chapelier with her fashion advice for the hapless American tourist. She is weakest as La Crème, which is a pity because it is really her story Hiam wants to tell, but I fully sympathize with the stress of having to appear on stage in very close quarters in very little clothing.
Undeland makes many costume changes on stage, some in full view of the audience and some behind a little screen. As far as I could tell she did it all single-handed, and I think maybe having a dresser concealed behind the screen would make things easier for the actress. Even when she is hidden, Undeland is never off stage, often playing more than one character while changing, using a hand or just her face poking through the curtains of the screen to announce her presence. Surely having someone else to fasten the Velcro (or wave a substitute arm while Undeland fastened her own) would be to everyone’s advantage.
The inimitable Govane Lohbauer has designed Undeland’s costumes, all of which are fun and flattering and none of which are so revealing as to be shocking (and I did notice a flesh-colored garment of some kind underneath it all, so she is insured in case of disaster). I see there was also an underwear consultant, Lynda Meyer, involved. I wonder what sort of training you need to go in to that kind of work? It sounds almost as naughty as being a courtesan!
As always, the Great Hall of Ventfort Hall forms the perfect backdrop for the tiny circular stage and Carl Sprague’s detailed little set. Paris 1890, Unlaced I have often used the word bijou when referring to Ventfort Hall productions, and the appellation has never been more apt.
This is not a show to take the kiddies to. This is a play about the grown-up sexual relationships between men and women. While all the references are titillatingly oblique, there is never any doubt what the topic is.
For too many millennia, sex – whether through marriage, for hire, or through an arrangement such as La Crème and Le Chef have – has been one of the few routes for women to acquire money and the power that it brings. It is only very, very recently, and in relatively few places in the globe, that women have had any options. One thing Hiam, Taylor, and Undeland do very nicely is demonstrate the close and supportive friendships that developed, and code of ethics by which women worked in less enlightened times, to ensure each other’s financial and physical security.
But I am leaning too much on the somber sociological side of things. What Paris 1890, Unlaced is first and foremost is funny. I laughed a lot, and you will too – provided you unlace whatever constricts you first!
Paris 1890, Unlaced will run through September 6 at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., Lenox, MA. Performances are scheduled every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm, every Saturday at 4:00 pm and every Sunday at 10:00 am. Tickets are $22 per person with discounts for groups of 10 or more. Reservations are encouraged due to limited audience space. The show runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission. For further information and to purchase tickets call Ventfort Hall at 413-637-3206.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009