Anyone reading the dramatis personae of Anne Washburn’s The Ladies might expect a bitchfest of the highest historical pedigree: Imelda Marcos, Eva Perón, Jiang Qing (a/k/a Madame Mao), and Elena Ceausescu convene in an undefined afterworld to hash out the lurid details of each other’s lives. Camp would seem to be a given in such a scenario, but Washburn has concocted something far more ambitious and cerebral. Part experimental essay on female self-invention, part disquisition into cults of personality, The Ladies is a true theatrical oddball that aims to be every bit as complicated, frustrating, and indescribable as its four notorious heroines.
To this roiling mix, Washburn and director Anne Kauffman have added two present-day characters—a playwright and a director named Washburn and Kauffman. Perched at a downtown café, the two chattily ratchet up the play’s meta-ness as they conceive and reconceive their characters, whimsically conjuring their distaff political summit out of thin air. Or is it the other way around? The piece explicitly shuns historical drama’s one-way gaze in favor of a cross-temporal exchange of gossip, hearsay, and, occasionally, fact. As Kauffman dryly observes at one point, “These women have become, somehow, part of my psyche.”
Deliberately devoid of narrative, The Ladies can feel both over-conceptualized and underdeveloped. The four dictatrices wander the stage like spiritual sisters, incanting and sometimes singing their lines in communal hypnosis. Hardly flesh and blood, they are totems of husband-worshipping zealotry whose only empathetic moments come when they’re channeling similarly maniacal women, namely Ibsen’s Nora and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, whose words they take turns ventriloquizing. Life is a performance, and for these ladies, it’s an immaculately controlled one. But couldn’t we have at least one catfight?