There are two one-person plays taking place across town from one another, each concerning notable individuals separated by a generation who broke the conventions of their time.
But how very different their stories are.
At The Geffen Playhouse, the unmatchable Annette Bening would make Ruth Draper herself envious with her amazing ability to give life to the society women whose circles Draper inhabited and who provided the raw material for her work.
At the Mark Taper Forum, Daniel Beaty is receiving much-deserved standing ovations as he embodies the life of 20th century African-American superstar actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson.
Ruth Draper was born into a wealthy American family and had a gift for mimicry and observation that she turned into a profession, creating and acting out multiple characters onstage with her series of “Monologues.”
While society at the time allowed for “drawing room drama,” women from respectable families were not expected to entertain on a stage. Despite those social barriers, Draper became a leading performer, bringing her renowned character studies to large crowds in New York, throughout the U.S. and across Europe, entertaining general audiences, royalty and other actors, many of whom have cited her as their inspiration.
Annette Bening is a marvel. There are four monologues in which we meet just one character, and yet we feel the presence of many others on the stage with her.
In “A Class in Greek Poise,” we see the early makings of self-improvement classes involving manners as well as exercise. A lovely instructor is teaching her overweight society matrons how to carry themselves and affect a positive outlook. Sound familiar?
“A Debutante at a Dance” is hilarious; the fact that Bening, now a grandmother, can pull off embodying this teenager, a flighty, flirty young coquette who is attempting sophistication, is minor miracle. She does it brilliantly.
“Doctors and Diets” is set as a “ladies who lunch but don’t eat” vignette, and truly could be ripped straight out of today’s gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, lacto-intolerant, nutritionally confusing headlines.
Again we sense the reality of the ladies at the table with her, the waiter and the restaurant crowd as Bening brilliantly invokes their presence with just her voice, her change of register, her compliments about hats (she’s wearing an enormous feather in her cap). Seems that there’s just as much confusion about diets today as there was in Draper’s time!
And as my play-going companion, was once a personal assistant to a big celebrity, told me, the final monologue “The Italian Lesson” could have been about her former employer. Bening’s character represents that super-rich, self-important, eccentric, egocentric society woman whose personal concerns overshadow those of the “little people” who serve her.
Here again, we have a room filled with children, a dog, a housekeeper, a cook, an Italian teacher and other characters – except it’s just Bening onstage, who has managed to give us all of them through physical and vocal transformations, a costume change and a prop or two, including a chaise longue (STET!) and especially, a telephone.
Quite simply, this is a perfect and timeless performance. Annette Bening is onstage in “Ruth Draper’s Monologues” through May 18 at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. It’s a tour-de-force and not to be missed. Find out more at www.geffenplayhouse.com.
‘The Tallest Tree in the Forest’
Paul Robeson was born far from the society of rich ladies who lunch. His father had been a slave who ran away to become a minister and his mother was a Quaker. His brother was more of a challenger, a fighter, and died young. Robeson took life lessons from both his parents and his brother.
Paul’s many talents included his powerful intellect, which led him to become his class valedictorian at Rutgers University in 1919. He was also star athlete and fan All American football player. And he attended law school at Columbia University for two years. But everywhere he turned, he encountered racism and found it a crippling barrier.
Robeson also had a powerful voice that would turn him into a star onstage, and that he would use to challenge the civil injustices of his era. Believing in the arts as a unifying force, Robeson spoke out loudly as he went from being the “most famous Negro in the world” to being publicly condemned as a traitor and blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Daniel Beaty created the one-man show, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” acting and singing the history of Robeson’s life. He opens with Robeson’s signature song, the one that launched his career, “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat, which he starred in onstage in London and later in the film and would perform throughout his life.
Robeson’s secret weapon was his amazing wife, Essie, who was herself a groundbreaking black woman, whose own career in chemistry made her a star in her own right. But Robeson became her project, guiding him in his choices, standing by him in good times and bad, staying with him despite his repeated affairs, and we feel the strength of her conviction and passion in Beaty’s realization of her character as much as Robeson’s.
Beaty gives us the actor, the activist, and the unfairly accused Robeson, whose undoing was his naivete in believing and stating that there was no racism in the USSR under Stalin. This is what caused the State Department to revoke his passport, a decision later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In crafting “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” Daniel Beaty helps us remember and honor an artist who should never have been forgotten in the first place. The play is onstage at The Mark Taper Forum downtown through May 25. More information at centertheatregroup.org.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.