Women of Cause, Women of Conscience. The Working Women of Off-Off Broadway. Part Two

A Four-Part Series in Drama-Queens and reprinted in OuterStage
Written by Sander Gusinow

The Off-Off Broadway scene surges with revolutionary female voices. Whether writers, directors, or producers, women have advanced the Off-Off community for decades, continually clawing against the gender bias of the for-profit theatre world. It is a time-honored tradition for us to acknowledge some of this swelling talent; celebrating a chosen few women for their time, commitment, and good old-fashioned theatrical know-how. Without further ado … the next installment of some of the hardest Working Women in Off-Off Broadway!

Part Two: KRIS LUNDBERG: Shakespeare’s Sister Company

10428708_10152325912942475_1387033952609351193_n‘What if Shakespeare had an equally talented sister?’ mused Virginia Woolf, Patron Saint of Kris Lundberg’s bold and inspirational company. Lundberg propels Shakespeare’s Sister forward as producer, writer, and performer. Treading the tightrope between the modern day and romantic past, (producing both Shakespeare and Theresa Rebeck) Lundberg’s company uses powerhouse theater to electrify the audience with stories old and new. Shakespeare’s Sister aspires to give the audience a gasp of realization, a flash of insight into both a character and themselves.

10590526_10152665726522430_5767518337633915148_nIn her new play Muse, Lundberg both writes and portrays Renaissance model-turned-painter Elizabeth Siddal; a dynamic artist who finds the strength to succeed in a world that fights incessantly against her. Lundberg’s play isn’t about the struggle of ‘us against them,’ however. Muse is more about giving yourself the permission to succeed. While ridiculing external limitations is necessary, it’s the internal blockage that most often inhibits growth.

10152622_10152374787722430_6562624925442943457_nIt’s a message Lundberg carries with her into schools, helping children from 1st grade . Her company is adamant in its initiative to bring literacy, team building, and critical thinking to students. Shakespeare’s Sister offers a unique blend of creative and constructive learning methods using Common Core academic standards. Lundberg’s drive is strengthened by her belief that all students should have the opportunity to recognize the gifts they have inside of them. Making a difference, empowering her audience both on and off the stage, Kris Lundberg is woman Virginia Woolf would be proud to call compatriot.

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Review of MUSE by Sander Gusinow
Theatre for the New City

 

muse1I’ve always been a staunch adversary of the so-called ‘Lofty Concept’ theatre. Plays claiming to be ‘about art’ are often quick to abandon being art themselves. The ceaseless high-brow brow-beating, the monotonous monologues about the playwright’s topic-du-jour, these plays are some of the most somniferous on the market. Surely one can understand the inherent skepticism facing a play like Shakespeare’s Sister company’s Muse, about the historical romance between turn-of-the-century painter Dante Rossetti and model-turned-painter Elizabeth Siddal.

The play begins with Rossetti, played by the absorbing Greg Pragel, alone in his loft and quite charmingly insane. He bemoans the loss of his Muse. Through flashbacks, we are led through his memory as he recalls his love affair, and later subsequent marriage, to his fiery-haired model Elizabeth, played by Kris (also the playwright) Lundberg.

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Romance bristles between the boastful, charismatic Dante and the bright, humble Elizabeth. The brambles of their affair revolve around Elizabeth’s budding talent as an artist, and her eventual eclipsing of her beloved in popularity. (she sells entire collections while he teaches at 18th century community college)  Dante renounces his ego (and his other models) to marry Elizabeth, and Elizabeth, through Dante’s (mostly) supportive efforts, finds the strength to succeed in a closed-minded era.  They inspire each other to new heights; and foster each other’s growth as artists and individuals.

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Despite the period, what captured me most about Muse was just how close to home it could cut. Lundberg’s script earnestly captures the trials of a modern egalitarian relationship;  incessant work travel, pregnancy complications, and  occasional ‘I don’t want my wife making more than me’  Alpha-male anxiety. Were Rossetti and Siddal really that ahead of their time? Who knows (and who cares?) but if the point of a historical drama is to build a bridge to the past, Lundberg is a competent mason.

Muse simmers with Wildean wit and Lazzi-esque physical comedy. One of the early scenes in which Elizabeth has a gleefully one-sided conversation with the self-absorbed  Dante (all while modeling) is particularly engrossing. Director Jay Michaels creates an elegant passing of time through lights and suggestion as the play jumps years in just a few moments; he does so with playful montage depicting the years gone by and the evolution of the relationship. The scrumptious costume design of Jessa-Raye Court are also worth a mention; a play with a model can’t skimp on the silk.

Still, Muse inevitably muses. Lengthy banter about the Royal Academy, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and artistic Raison d’etreoccasionally falls on deaf ears. Although the lofty and circuitous discussion wears out its welcome from time to time, Lundberg and Pragel are swiftly to the rescue with intelligent nuance and electric chemistry.

Muse is a soulful, intelligent success. For all it’s historical pertinence, educational value, and keen feminist undertones, the play triumphs because it accomplishes what every great romance must; It’s delightful watching Dante and Elizabeth fall in love, and it’s agony seeing them ripped apart. In the end, death separates the duo rather than jealousy or difference of opinion (though they have both in spades). Without Elizabeth, Dante is lost. One can’t help but think that if their fates had been reversed, his wife would have mourned him with the same fervor. Each was the others Muse; their love supplied their lives with meaning.

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