Americans love reality television. From Survivor to Top Chef, there is something for every scenario and gimmick. If reality TV had been the rage in 1901, Anna Edson Taylor would have transformed from average American to celebrity and starred in a hit, headlining every tabloid.
Alas, the real woman was 110 years too early, but Transport Group’s Queen of the Mist by Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party ; Marie Christine) examines Taylor’s life in a beautiful world premiere production.
Taylor is introduced in a fast-paced opener showing her skills as a master in the art of deception. Like a celebrity diva talking her way out of a jail sentence, she habitually evades rent before moving in with her sister in New York.
She sheds her style of swindling and revamps her act, this time as a self-proclaimed woman of scientific experiments. The only experiment she concocts seems to be more of a big-top circus act, though: to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel of her own design and live. Taylor hopes she will be catapulted over the falls and into celebrity and riches.
Ambitious and driven, she seeks out a manager and settles on Frank Russell, the perfect foil to Annie (as she is known to those whom she does not deflect, which are few in number). Russell sees through her deceits and knows she plans to use him to get rich and famous. With Russell essentially just a figurehead manager, Taylor produces her sideshow experiment, makes it into the history books and struggles to deal with the aftermath.
Mary Testa (foreground), Stanley Bahorek, D.C. Anderson and Tally Sessions, in Queen of the Mist
Queen, in its pupal stage, is safely housed within the chrysalis of the Gym at Judson. The seating functionally suits the converted theater while also stylistically meshing with the show. Chairs on deep, steep bleachers reach to the ceiling and line either side of the performance area to create a symbolic gorge. In this intimate setting, the audience becomes omniscient spectators as if time-traveling reality television viewers. Small chandeliers and pale, eerie lighting recall an elegant era of bygone times, providing a haunting setting.
LaChiusa’s score sweeps over the audience to complete the atmosphere. Between full numbers, the versatile musical septet plays nearly continuous underscoring. These passages seem like the water, which ebbs, churns and swirls forward. At times, the music is in such constant motion that it almost loses control, especially in emotionally heightened scenes that delve into Taylor’s psyche. LaChiusa draws parallels between Taylor and the water, as both have unbridled energy and fierce determination often on the brink of fury.
And what fury it is. Mary Testa (Xanadu ; Chicago) gives a powerhouse performance as Anna Edson Taylor. While other shows’ protagonists might have fairly smooth character arcs, Taylor cycles through the ups and downs typical of any tabloid celebrity. Testa masterfully rides the waves to the top of their crests and crashes to the lows. Like an emotional dam, Testa meticulously controls every muscle in her body to portray Taylor’s stoic façade and only opens the emotional floodgates in moments of extreme emotion. Inattentive observers might not notice the defeat and helplessness in Testa’s eyes while she apparently struts with confidence back into the life of her timid younger sister, Jane; however, it is impossible to ignore the raging raw emotions that Testa exudes, especially in the finale. Testa’s delivery puts her in the league of legendary performers alongside the likes of Merman and Lansbury.
Mary Testa and the cast of Queen of the Mist : Julia Murney, Theresa McCarthy, D.C. Anderson and Stanley Bajorek
Supporting Testa in her standout performance is a cast of six, most of whom play a multitude of roles to great effect. Testa’s best scene partner is Andrew Samonsky as Frank Russell (South Pacific), who manages to be charming even through his drunken swagger and angry outbursts.
The minimal set by Sandra Goldmark (The Boys in the Band) and basic period costuming by Kathryn Rohe are functional and allow the focus to be Taylor’s story. A few judicious cuts to book scenes and a few numbers would allow the production to flow with a stronger current toward the beautifully crafted finale.
Just like the reality stars of today, Anna Edson Taylor is a woman who sought celebrity status for the money, the glamor, the attention - simply put, the hope of being famous for being famous. Queen of the Mist explores beyond Taylor’s hardened façade and delves into the murky, swirling pool of emotions below her surface in ways reality television could never have achieved. Stripped bare, Testa’s embodiment of Taylor’s humanity and vulnerability is what makes Taylor immortalized as a true star.
Queen of the Mist, by Michael John LaChiusa
Commissioned by Transport Group Theatre Company (transportgroup.org)
Through November 20, 2011
At The Gym at Judson - 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South, New York
Directed by Jack Cummings III.
With: Mary Testa, D.C. Anderson, Stanley Bahorek, Theresa McCarthy, Julia Murney, Andrew Samonsky, and Tally Sessions.