“Lady” is a fraught word these days. Ladies subjugate their own needs to the needs of others. They’re unfailingly polite, dress modestly and never use profanity. Call someone a lady and she might correct you: she identifies as a nasty woman.
The four ladies of Ladies, a world premiere play at Pasadena’s Boston Court, reside in 18th-century London. They too chafe at the restrictions placed on them by society, yearning to express their talents publicly and stand up to their husbands. They’re known as Bluestockings, educated women seeking the same level of conversation and achievement as men.
Two generations of Bluestockings merge into one story here, with the women building deep bonds, sharing the exhilarations and frustrations of art created and equality denied. They lift each other up, and sometimes let each other down.
The Bluestockings’ storylines are interrupted and annotated by the playwright, Kit Steinkellner – or, more accurately, all four actresses taking turns stepping into her glasses and describing her process of research, writing and playing with history. This conceit feels alternately insightful and self-indulgent – which the playwright character acknowledges onstage.
The psychological texture of Steinkellner’s insistence on confessing her doubts about her work process is sometimes jarring, as ladies in petticoats and red glasses break the fourth wall and take us out of a richly woven story with decidedly unladylike language.
Steinkellner’s admitted challenges wrangling the material and her insertion of herself as a fifth character add depth and context, but also raise questions about some of her choices. For example, after writing a storyline about Frances Burney (Jully Lee), a novelist whose husband resisted her publishing, Steinkellner learned that in fact women novelists were common in the 1700s, and Burney, a wildly successful writer who counted Jane Austen as a fan, likely met no such spousal resistance.
What are we to do with this authorial choice? If not for the contemporary playwright, the audience might be none the wiser, and the controlling husband trope could be accepted at face value. Instead, the audience knows the story is consciously built on a twisting of facts. Instead of passively absorbing a straightforward story, playgoers must ask themselves questions about truth and history, art and objectivity that may not have arisen without the contemporary insertions.
Although the story is fictionalized, the ladies are real historical references. Playwright Steinkellner came across these pre-feminism feminists at London’s National Portrait Gallery and was intrigued enough to spend a decade learning more about them and the Bluestockings. In addition to Burney, her story includes salon hostess and Shakespeare expert Elizabeth Montagu (Meghan Andrews), poet and translator Elizabeth Carter (Carrie Kawa), and painter Angelica Kauffman (Tracey A. Leigh), a founding member of the Royal Academy. All the ladies, and all actresses playing them, deserve acclaim.
Ladies grew out of a 2018 reading at Boston Court; reworking included a new opening and ending, both of which are compelling. Director Jessica Kubzansky keeps the action moving and the emotions well-played. Ladies (the play) is a must-see for ladies and nasty women alike.
Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley contribute immeasurably. A cross between historical and contemporary, they are reminders of the restrictions of the times, the purity of those who seek a path where none has yet trod, and the blessing and curse that is femininity. Accent Coach Nike Doukas worked with the cast to help enable their spot-on accents.
Ladies will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm Boston Court, 70 Mentor Ave., Pasadena. For tickets, click here. (Note that the bottom of this ticket page lists post-show discussions on select dates.)