The Last Reading of Charlotte Cushman
by Anthony Chase
The Brazen-Faced Varlets, Buffalo’s valiant and persevering feminist theater group, has moved from Rust Best Books on Allen, to the new Rust Belt Books on Grant Street. The new venue is remarkably similar to the old. The theater space is as intimate, but squarer—and every bit as luxurious (which is to say spare to the point of being Spartan).
In recent outings, the mission of this company, which exploded onto the scene several years ago with Ramona and Juliet, a hilarious and irreverent lesbian retelling of Romeo and Juliet, has led the group down a community theater path that was markedly more amateurish than their best work. For their first show on the West Side, the Varlets have pulled in the reigns and come out with a lean and entirely professional offering, showcasing the talents of their director Lara D. Haberberger and one of their finest leading players, Heather Fangsrud. Most daring of all, Ms. Fangsrud is evoking the persona of one of the greatest actresses who ever lived, the legendary Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876), the first American-born classically trained actress.
The play is The Last Reading of Charlotte Cushman by feminist writer Carolyn Gage. Here we meet Cushman in the last minutes of her life, afflicted with breast cancer, but determined to continue performing. The theme of this evening’s reading: “death.”
Gage conjures an interpretation of Cushman that is part history and part contemporary lesbian politics. Little nods to contemporary issues allow the audience to reconsider the great actress (or contemplate her for the very first time) through the lens of today’s feminist and LGBT issues.
Fangsrud rises to the task and strides out onto the tiny stage with confidence. I had forgotten, since the days of Ramona and Juliet, that this actor has a delightful capacity for clowning, which she employs on this occasion with devilish merriment. Taking on the persona of Charlotte Cushman, she directs her dry wit at the legendary actress’s life, her loves, and the roles she played. She deftly delves into great scenes from Cushman’s career, wryly overplaying the melodrama and even getting hilarity from an overwrought death scene.
The production is entirely enjoyable and establishes a firm footing for Brazen-Faced Varlets in their new venue. At the same time, Fangsrud’s performance reenergizes the theatricality and professional focus of this valiant little company. The production continues through October 18th, matinees only, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm at the new Rust Belt Books at 415 Grant Street.
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