By Austin Kaiser
“The Terrible Legend of Victoria Woodhull” is about the first American woman to found a newspaper, address Congress, and run for president. She ran in 1872. It’s a civil rights story and a rags-to-riches story. The actress, Ashley Ford, did something I like very much. She walked into the room in character mid-scene, as if going about her day. This drew me in. However, the melodrama that followed kept me at a distance.
When an actor says everything with a clenched fist or a stomped foot, I get fatigued after 30 minutes. There was too much exposition, as well. Her father burnt down his farm’s mill for insurance money. Her brother ran away from home. Such information didn’t help the performance achieve certain emotional highs or hit the marks of basic storytelling structure. Victoria’s narration of past events far exceeded description of her immediate choices.
When Victoria moved from her hometown to California, she had no money, no job and no friends. Here was a chance to see our hero solve a problem with a creative solution. She stood in front of a door and knocked. “Do you have work? No? Okay.” Next door. Same response. Next door. Same response. Next door. “Oh, you are hiring? You need an actress? You’re willing to pay $52 a week? Oh, I never thought of myself as an actress but I suppose I could. After all, I was the leader of my friends back home and often put on make-believe shows for them.” Scene done. The story moves on.
Victoria slept with someone who gave her $200,000 so she could start a newspaper. I didn’t expect another magic-finger-snap plot point, but there it was. It happened in 15 seconds of dialog. Her presidential campaign was the quickest scene at the end of the show, in just a few lines.
There were many opportunities to dramatize scenes, instead of simply narrate them. Victoria was the first woman to address Congress. That scene was shown. The speech went along the lines of: women deserve rights as much as men do. Anything less is discrimination. We must band together to change this status quo for our children’s sake. I saw this predictable speech as a missed opportunity for Theo Salter, the playwright, to say something new or thought-provoking, but the speech consisted of platitudes and generalities.
In addition to Victoria, the play features a contemporary girl from 2018 who performes a séance to connect with Victoria. This was the premise of the show. Occasionally, the play would stop and the contemporary girl would whip back into the present and say, “What the heck is going on? I was just surrounded by men with mutton chops and breath that smelled like stale cigars.” These moments I found too full of zingers. As fascinating as it would be to see a person transfigured into a historical figure, all we got were punchlines. When the story was over and the girl returned to the present for good, she exclaimed, “What the actual fuck?!”
According to the show’s press release, “Many terrible tales have been told about Victoria C. Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872…[We] will tell her tale and set the record straight.” That sentiment is why, I think, there is so much straightforward biographical narration. The makers of the show want to correct misconceptions. However, I didn’t have preconceived notions about this figure, and wanted to learn about her in a more fresh way. I wish I were gushing that her presidential campaign was interesting and she was an ingenious pioneer, but this was not depicted engagingly. It was mentioned that she was into free love and interested in loving multiple people, of all genders and races, at a time. That’s a fascinating fact, but insufficiently explored in the show.
The play mentions the #metoo movement, but the reference is undeveloped. Victoria Woodhull was undoubtedly a feminist pioneer with insight to offer about the times we live in, about the challenges of being publicly loud with the truth, and how men rationalize treating humans in inhumane ways. But the performance didn’t quite do justice to this genius woman who made history.
“The Terrible Legend of Victoria Woodhull”
Performed by Ashley Ford
Oct. 4 at 9pm, Oct. 6 at 7:30pm
Playwright: Theo Salter
Director: Karen Louisa Linton
Stage Manager: Aislinn Curry
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
AUSTIN KAISER is a writer with an expertise in art and the creative process. His writing is about improving your imagination and exercising your empathy muscle. Kaiser is currently writing a book called, “100 Questions Every Artist Should Have The Answers To.” His other book, “How To Go Viral & Put Wings On Ideas: A Book For Content Creators & Young Artists,” explains how ideas travel and which ideas travel best. More at www.medium.com/@KaiserMane.