The Blue Stockings Society, a loose organization of intellectual women based in London during the 18th century, may sound like an appropriate subject for a doctoral dissertation, which indeed it is and has been with some frequency for at least the past thirty years. But thanks to playwright Kit Steinkellner, the “bluestockings,” as they were subsequently known, are now unforgettable characters in one of the most exciting new plays of the season. Initially inspired by an exhibition of portraits of these rebels in fancy frocks, Steinkellner has crafted an extraordinary emotional and intellectual journey with something very important to say to our disjointed and too often reactionary era. These women were feminists before the term had been invented, and as a result, they lived with a disconcerting combination of freedom and uncertainty that will seem familiar to anyone who feels bewildered by the intense polarization of the present moment. It’s a hard thing to be born before one’s role in society has a name, and it took a perceptive person of Kit Steinkellner’s generation to identify the gravity of this condition of intelligent women in 1750 as being this deeply relevant to our own.
Ladies traces the lives, loves, dreams, and doubts of four historical figures from the period beginning in 1750. Elizabeth Montagu (Meghan Andrews) is the doyenne of the bluestockings, a moneyed aristocrat whose fortune allows her to entertain and support the work of dozens of artists, many of whom are women. Elizabeth Carter (Carie Kawa), a classicist who writes poetry, is her best friend and occasional antagonist. Frances “Fanny” Burney, the author of the satirical novel Evelina, is Montagu’s young protégé, and Angelica Kauffman (Tracy A. Leigh) is a Swiss painter who falls in with the bluestockings, and then falls in love with Fanny Burney.
Preview: Ladies | Youtube.com
The four actors are all marvelous, and perhaps never more so than when they take turns donning a pair of trendy red glasses to act the part of the show’s fifth main character, a version of the playwright who comments on the 18th century action. It’s a daring meta-gambit, and it comes up a winner. In tandem with the play’s other main staging concept, which is a series of increasingly loaded sequences in which the women dress and undress on stage, the presence of this charmingly vulnerable voice from the 21st century is what lifts the bluestockings’ dilemmas into a space of timeless relevance. Beautifully directed by Jessica Kubzansky, Ladies is one of the must-see shows of the year in Southern California. Here’s hoping it goes on to become a staple of the repertoire. We’ve never needed these ladies more than we do today.
Ladies plays through June 30, at the Boston Court Theatre, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 683-6801 or see bostoncourtpasadena.org.