A felicitous accident of programming links Molly Hickok’s Mary Chestnut’s Bone Cage to Paule Turner, Duchess’s She’s Out of Her Tree. Both are highly physical character studies of white women, but there the resemblance ends. Hickok plays a Confederate-era plantation-owner’s wife, Turner a “white-trash slut” who shoots her husband, sells her body, gets to Paris, and finally surrenders to the cops.
A brilliantly controlled actress working from Chestnut’s diary, Hickok has crafted a tight monologue. While explaining her rationale for owning slaves, she quietly goes mad. Refinements of costume, music, subtle scenic elements, and ingenious props move her from cheerful hospitality to total self-obliteration. The piece is a tour de force; someone should find Hickok a musical to star in, or make one based on this material.
Turner, an African American, treats the Duchess (whose nickname and character he appears to have annexed permanently to his own) respectfully, evoking her with all the resources at his disposal–women’s clothing, a wig, a body that could pass for a pubescent girl’s, a stream of self-absorbed conversation, a suitcase full of props, lip-synched and recorded sound, and constant smoking. This last item undercut the work for me–I don’t hang around smokers in my daily life, and resent being forced to do it in the theater. The Duchess can be funny and charming and outrageous and sad, but finally I don’t care about this murderous, self-deluding, addicted dame. She lights six cigarettes in the course of the one-act piece; by the fourth I was ready to go home.