The inaugural production of the Falls Church theater group Creative Cauldron’s 2017-18 season is the Washington D.C.-area debut of the musical “The Mistress Cycle,” the story of four diverse historical figures linked by a commonality – they were all mistresses – and a woman in the present who relies on their guidance as she struggles with a decision to engage with a married man.
Three of the historical figures are pulled straight out of the textbooks. Anias Nin (played by Julia Capizzi) is a high society girl living it up in Jazz Age era New York who was a pioneer of erotica. Lulu White (Iyona Blake) escaped servitude in Alabama to become a brothel owner and eventually one of the wealthiest landowners in New Orleans. And Diane de Poitiers (Abby Middleton) is a 16th century lady-in-waiting who shared a mutual love with King Henri II of France and was ultimately kept away from his deathbed due to their unofficial marital status.
The degree to which the play tries to weave a defining thru-line through history is partially undercut by the thematic muddling of a word it seems hell-bent on deconstructing. The play’s opening number defines a mistress as “a woman who illicitly occupies the place of a wife” but it’s a stretch to use that word for the relationship between Lulu and her “clients” or to define Nin by that word when history shows she was on the receiving and giving end of deceit. In that same light, the play’s shortcomings at delivering on its own gimmick is a testament to the richness of these women that they are all more interesting than a simple label.
The only snag is that without a connective thread, it’s largely an array of interesting women’s stories that sink or swim on their own merit. Fortunately, people will likely find many stories particularly resonant.
In particular, the story of the 14-year-old concubine from 12th century China (Justine Icy Moral) is the play’s most evocative and emotionally trying. Whereas the first three stories can be celebrated (partially or wholly) as unlikely triumphs, hers is one of servitude to both the king and senior concubines and her prayers at the shrine of her late grandfather are particularly bleak.
In the midst of all these remarkable women there’s not as much space for us to get to know the central character, Tess Walker (Erica Clare). She’s a modern day woman who’s been unlucky in love and gets socially flustered at an art gallery where she works. Clare handles the material well but there’s no reason the script couldn’t have made her backstory more interesting than every woman (and man) in a standard romantic comedy.
According to Creative Cauldron director Laura Hull, the play was conceived and staged in the tradition of song cycles: The staging is minimalist and much of the action is played out through songs aimed directly at the audience as opposed to alongside a scene partner. Without a scene partner, the play veers into a more experimental territory, but that’s well within the spirit of Creative Cauldron’s repertoire which suits itself to more intimate space and makes use of it quite well.
The end result is something akin to “Chicago”’s “Cell Block Tango” if it were stretched out to an hour and everyone got an extra turn at the microphone so a second song could round out their narrative.
With music playing such a heavy emphasis, it helps that the five leads are all strong singers with variation. Capizzi has certain poppish edge to her voice, whereas Moral’s numbers feel more operatic. The piano score has a lot of subtlety to appreciate (particularly, the haunting pentatonic arpeggios during the concubine’s number) and is able to convey both urgency and mood. The only critique here is that the melodies aren’t particularly memorable and it feels like scoring all the way through.
“The Mistress Cycle” is playing at the Creative Cauldron (410 S Maple Ave., Falls Church) from Oct. 5 – 29. Tickets are available at creativecauldron.org.