Horseplay: or, The Fickle Mistress: Review by Raven Snook
Comely, gender-bending chameleons like Marlene, Madonna and Gaga owe their shtick at least in part to 19th-century star Adah Isaacs Menken (Molly Pope, worthy of worship), a performer, poet and publicity master who had as many personas as paramours. Was she a nice Jewish girl, a Louisiana Creole or an Irish lass? No one really knows, and it doesn't matter: She was her own reinvention.
Menken's main claim to infamy was riding a horse in a nude body stocking in the melodrama Mazeppa, which toured internationally and won her admirers and admonitions. As a vaudeville historian and performer himself, playwright Trav S.D.'s affection for the Menken (as she was known at the height of her fame) is understandable. She's a rich subject—her oft-covered escapades predate today's tabloid targets, though unlike a cheap narcissist such as Kim Kardashian, Menken longed to be taken seriously as an artist.
That unrealized desire, the social and sexual barriers she broke and Pope's glorious performance are what elevate Horseplay above standard showbiz biography. Opening on her deathbed as she recounts the many stories of her life to her manager (Chuck Montgomery), the play flashes back to her impoverished childhood and proceeds in linear fashion as she hobnobs and bed-hops with 1800s celebrities and intellectuals, including Jan Leslie Harding as butch bohemian Ada Clare and Ridiculous Theatrical Company stalwart Everett Quinton as George Sand.
Pope is marvelous, fluidly changing accents and outfits in front of our eyes (costumes, wigs, props and set pieces are all in full view), belting out a few numbers in her smoky voice and maintaining charm when delivering some very dark punch lines. As she says dryly about her dead baby: "Hopefully he will be of some use to human knowledge now at that dime museum."
Produced by Theatre Askew, Horseplay is scrappy, campy and all over the place, much like its heroine. Perhaps that's intentional, but at almost two-and-a-half hours, it's in need of serious nips and tucks. As Menken learned in her brief but eventful life, scandal can only keep audiences interested for so long.—Raven Snook
Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa E.T.C. (see Off-Off Broadway). By Trav S.D. Directed by Elyse Singer. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hr 25mins. One intermission.