In a post-Trump age, feminist theater makes a strong comeback — in North Texas, at least — with a trio of current productions

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Linda Leonard as Ann Richards, was surprised to find so much of the iconic women she portrays within herself. (Photos courtesy Buddy Myers, Joy D. Sanchez)

 

In 1998, local theater artists Pam Myers-Morgan and Linda Marie Ford discovered an astonishing fact: that while 50 percent of the plays published that year were written by women, they represented only about 16 percent of those produced. That astonishing imbalance helped inspire the duo to found Echo Theatre, based on a mission of amplifying the voices of women in theater by only producing plays written by them. For nearly 20 years, Echo — as well as other theaters in North Texas — have fought the good fight in achieving diverse representation of voices. It’s been an uphill battle: Three years ago, Echo’s managing artistic director, Terri Ferguson, did similar research about publication-vs.-production, and found the numbers were almost exactly the same.

Which, perhaps, is what makes the current spate of female-focused entertainment all the more significant. No fewer than three shows open this month to add unique and powerful voices to the chorus … and just in time for Pride Month, no less.

Brides of the Moon — written by The Five Lesbian Brothers (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Haley and Lisa Kron) and directed by Terri Ferguson — begins its two-week run on June 8 with a cast that includes Stephanie Butler, Kateri Cale, Caroline Cole, LisaAnn Haram and Leslie Patrick. Stage West is bringing back Linda K. Leonard as firebrand Texas Gov. Ann Richards in Holland Taylor’s acclaimed one-woman show Ann, this time presented at Irving Arts Center. And on June 7, the independently-produced All About Bette, starring Dallas actress Morgana Shaw, begins its mini-DFW tour at Fair Park’s Margo Jones Theatre. Each show combines humor and deep insight, albeit in very different ways, that speak to the need to femme up the stage world.

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Morgana Shaw as Bette Davis, was surprised to find so much of the iconic women she portrays within herself. (Photos courtesy Buddy Myers, Joy D. Sanchez)

The first word that almost everyone says when describing Brides of the Moon is “hilarious.”

“When I came home from the first reading, my sides hurt from laughing,” the show’s sound designer, Rebecca Brooks, says. “Also there’s lots of lesbian orgies, that works out for me, too.”

Brides is a futuristic, high-octane farce (and yes, there’s lots of ladies making out) that combines campy futurism with an hilarious script and socio-political satire. If it sounds like it’s a lot, it is, as the five-person ensemble play nine different characters zipping around the galaxy Star Trek style.

Still, of course, there’s politics — and even some of the personal — involved. It rounds out the play, adding depth to the humor. “You get those moments where you get the kick in the gut and then it’s followed right by your laughter,” says Ferguson, who directed this version.

Both Ferguson and Brooks note that although Brides’ fun, rompy feel fits right in with Echo’s mission, and with taking on the challenging political times.

Part of the plot, for instance, revolves around conceptions about women’s “place in the world” — something that in a post-post-Hillary world resonates particularly strongly today. “One of the main characters is a mom who is a brilliant astronaut and physicist, and a giant corporation has retrained her by giving her conscious lowering tapes to make her happy as a housewife and a mother,” Brooks notes. “That kind of thing that’s coming back with the current government, putting rules in place to quote protect women, and it’s really to control them.”

But, as we’ve been told, well-behaved women rarely make history … which is probably why Ann Richards and Bette Davis are, to this day, some of the most recognizable feminists icons of the 20th century.

Hot on the heels of the delicious FX miniseries Feud, All About Bette is a deep, personal look at a different side of the film icon, a woman who definitely refused to hold anything back — or to be held back by anyone. The solo performance portrays Davis as aging in reverse. The audience first sees her after she’s had a late-in-life stroke. It’s a humanizing way to kick things off — and that’s the point of the entire play.

“The process for this particular show is a pretty deep one for me because I’m playing the human side of Bette,” says actress Morgana Shaw. “It’s intense. There’s the larger than life Bette everybody sees and is more often than not is performed in impersonation shows. But this script by Camellia Carr shows Bette’s human side. Her love, losses.”

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‘Brides of the Moon’ offers a wacky take on feminism… with a fair amount of lesbian orgies. (Photo courtesy Terri Ferguson)

Shaw studied all sides of Davis intensively to prepare for the role. As she dug deeper, she found that Davis was ahead of her time in terms of taking on a Hollywood where men called the shots, made the movies, and made the money.

“She fought the whole Hollywood studio system. It was a man’s game and she played them and she beat them. She stood up for what she believed in,” Shaw says. “Right now, it’s so relevant. It’s the same fight. We’ve won some battles and we’ve lost some battles. Right now it speaks volumes for strong women to put up that fight.”

What’s so subtle and powerful about All About Bette is how it shows how Davis embodied the fight on a personal scale as well, Shaw notes. While most depictions of the legend either come off as campy or larger-than-life, the play shows how her character fueled who she became. For Shaw, it was just one more connection she felt. “She never thought she was pretty. She was not the blonde bombshell. Never interested in the ingénue role. I relate so much to that,” she says.

As Shaw explored her characterization, she realized just how many connections the pair had. Those connections are what have allowed her to not just impersonate Davis, but to transform herself into her every night. “There’s something about her sprit. It’s interesting because I have been told most of my life that I had Bette Davis eyes. I even named one of my cats Bette Davis, but I didn’t know who she completely was until I came across this script.” But then, she says, “I read about her passion for her work and I thought, ‘That’s me.’ The hairs on my arms stood up I knew it could be life-changing,” Shaw says, with a bit of emotion seeping into her voice. “She was such a strong woman. She had such passion and belief in herself. And what it took to survive.”

Strength was also the defining characteristic of Ann Richards — well, that, and a penchant for the perfect zinger with a Texas twang. Ann was written by Emmy Award-winning actress Holland Taylor as a role for herself to perform, which she did exclusively… until last year, when Linda Leonard became the first new actress to take on the role for a five-week run at Stage West. The run was such a hit, executive producer Dana Schultes decided to bring it back… specifically as a commentary on the current political situation in the U.S. They “wanted to do it again sooner rather than later,” Leonard says, so when the opening at the Irving Arts Center came, they leapt at it. It also allowed the actress to refine and finesse a monstrous two-hour monologue.

“I am delighted to be doing it again,” says Leonard. “We need to see politicians who are honest and true and more of what we [deserve]. Whether you agreed with her politics, you had to respect Ann Richards’ integrity and how everything she did was about other people.”

For her own part, Leonard was something of a neophyte about Richards when she was first cast.

“I came [to Texas] in 1993, right at the end of her administration. But Holland was so helpful in my success in the role — she have me insights about Ann’s relationships that are not in the script. And I [began to see] a lot of me in her, which I didn’t expect when I started. That’s been really nice. I now have a better understanding what the play is [really about]. It’s about the woman — yes, her in a political arena, but also about how she was shaped so much by her four years in the governor’s office.”

And, as it happens, how much she influenced others. Leonard says every performance in the last run was a learning experience, as people would come up after to share their memories of the governor.

“People who came to see the show who knew her were absolutely in love with her,” she says. “She made you feel like you were the only person in the room. Two [European] women who came to see the show flew in from San Francisco [specifically for the production]. They had met Ann years earlier, and wanted to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary together with ‘her.’ The explained how much she had influenced their lives, including their efforts to get married and to stay in the United States. When you have that opportunity to embody someone who had that much giveback, it’s amazing.”           

— Jonanna Widner and Arnold Wayne Jones

Editor’s note: An error than combined the authors of Brides of the Moon with the local cast has been corrected.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 02, 2017.