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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
QUEEN OF THE MIST
at the Gym at Judson

HIGH DIVE IN A BARREL
By SANDY MACDONALD

  Mary Testa and company/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

Monomaniacs make such good fodder for musicals. Consider Sondheim’s Assassins¸ not to mention his barbarous Sweeney. Anna Edson Taylor (1838-1921), the real-life subject of composer Michael John LaChusa’s latest foray, Queen of the Mist, falls on the benign side of the spectrum. She merely set her mind to hurtling over Niagara Falls in a barrel of her own “scientific” design. And she actually succeeded, becoming – on her 63rd birthday – the first daredevil of either gender to survive the plunge.

In Sandra Goldmark’s evocative design for the Transport Group Theatre Company, the audience occupies acrophobia-inducing bleachers flanking a sluice-like runway festooned with lacy bunting (look for the devil’s head pattern within) and illumined by crystal chandeliers. When we meet Annie (the formidable Mary Testa), she’s down on her luck, being serially booted out of one Midwestern town after another, one step ahead of the law. She’s a huckster, if not an outright charlatan, peddling an assortment of self-improvement schemes (“revolutionary” voice lessons, “hygienic” exercises) to credulous housewives. “There is greatness in me,” she insists, though her bottom line would argue otherwise.

Her more conventional sister, Jane (lovely Theresa McCarthy), offers asylum, but even this gentle, generous soul must eventually turn the extravagant moocher out, on uxorial orders. It’s only then that the doughty survivor, thoroughly up the creek, hits on her get-rich-and-famous-quick scheme. Enlisting the help of a boozehound promoter (Andrew Samonsky), she attempts the impossible.

Act one builds to the launch; Act two founders in the aftermath. Annie, her brio perhaps dulled by post-traumatic stress, proves a dud on the celeb lecture circuit. Obsessed with fanning her fame, she sidles in to bitterness once her manager absconds with not only her funds, but her bespoke barrel. He goes so far as to tour the vaudeville circuit with a vulgar imposter (McCarthy again, equally brilliant as a shrill hoyden). Glory days gone, Anna falls back into penury and obscurity.

Testa does her best to soldier through this depressive downslide, but the second-act slump, written in, proves all but insurmountable. While it’s true that the real Annie ended up a pauper, evidence suggests that she never lost her entrepreneurial drive, delving into the spiritualist practices popular in her day (clairvoyance and the like) once her main chance had slipped through her fingers. LaChiusa may picture Annie reduced to a final dismissive flip-off, but the gesture suits neither her character nor the times.

Flawed as it may be, this probative production offers an unparalleled opportunity to see and hear Testa roar in close quarters. The other six members of the versatile cast, under the hard-driving direction of Jack Cummings III, match her lick for lick.

 


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