That Woman

That Woman

Written and directed by Jo Denver

Lind Lane Theatre

21st September – 29th September 2012

That Woman

“Everyone calls me Madame.”

She’s an American Beauty Icon.

She’s the woman behind the beauty industry.

She’s the woman who invented the mascara wand!

That Woman. Helena Rubinstein.

We don’t make a habit of reviewing previews but with The Fantasticks, Kelly, Brisbane Festival, the six year old almost on holidays and deadlines coming out of my ears, I just had to see this show at some stage and that happened to be Wednesday night’s preview.

You see, I wouldn’t have missed this one. And nor should you.

In her latest work, Sunshine Coast playwright, Jo Denver, explores the rivalry between America’s founding beauty queens, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Leading the makeup wars of the 1920’s – 1960’s, the women run head to head (and streets ahead of Revlon, Estee Lauder and the lower placed beauty brands). This is not just a history lesson for budding beauty therapists and cosmetic counter queens (though it’s a terrific, entertaining start!); it’s also an insightful imagining of one woman’s struggle to attain a balance between her family and her career. It sounds like a variation on the clichéd battle cry

WOMEN CAN HAVE IT ALL (we can but not all at the same time)

but it doesn’t come across that way. That Woman is a gentle feminist nudge and a timely reminder that it’s hard work and unfaltering self-confidence (and a bit of savvy marketing) that makes a winning combination.

Perfectly cast in the role of Madame Helena Rubinstein is the petite Michelle Connelly. She effortlessly pulls off the strange Polish-Jewish-Australian accent, the elegant fashions and the dramatic mannerisms and quirks (shall we say charms?), for which Madame was famous. Skillfully treading in her two toned high heeled T-Bars, Connelly finds the fine line between taking this character too far OTT and underplaying her conflicting emotions beautifully. This woman is a delight to watch.

She is well-matched by Sharon Grimley as the articulate Canadian born American, Elizabeth Arden, either known or imagined (I don’t know because I never did do the Elizabeth Arden training) to profess to her “ladies” the qualities desirable in a “lady” without necessarily being one herself. Grimley takes the sarcasm and various verbal vulgarities to the hilt. Brett Klease provides a gentle balance to early proceedings as Madame’s first husband, Titus, who seeks his own life outside of their marriage and despite his attempts to return to it on more than one occasion, Rubinstein never quite finds the time or energy to attend to her marriage the way she does her career.

Supporting roles are played by Adam Freeman, Sean Bennett, Rachael Fentiman, Howard Tampling, Mandi Hardcastle, Megan Zmendels, Dave Stygal, Julia Dawson and Hayley Freeman. It’s Fentiman’s natural comedy and gosh-darn-it-all pure cuteness that stands out here, when she appears as the naïve lady of the night, Gloria (in Act 1) and later, the much sassier Estee Lauder (in Act 2). She enjoys some lovely funny banter, in the first instance with Klease, and in the second with Tampling.

The action takes place against a stark black and white set comprised of a piece of New York City skyline and a multi-purpose interior, which serves as offices and various city spaces. It’s only when the staging changes later, bringing forth a runway and beautifully backlit silhouettes of the makeup moguls behind three screens that we get a glimpse of the image conscious world of Fifth Avenue that was such an influence on business and public perception at the time. There was a hint of it within scenes that touched on the media attention given to both women but I felt the high fashion element served to raise the stakes and needed to be prevalent in the interior design (to match the finesse of the costumes) much earlier.

Denver’s is an astute study and I’d love to see more of Madame. Whether it’s intentional or not, Denver gives us a very balanced view of both women and could certainly afford her leading lady more time in the spotlight. Varying approaches and a fourth wall that takes the opportunity to leap up and down in a bid for the next boy girl wall tour means that we have a combination of conventional dialogue, abstract thought and direct delivery to the audience. Within a witty, well-informed text, a couple of the monologues don’t ring quite true…yet (perhaps there are just too many of them) and an extended spiel given to Madame’s right hand man, Patrick, appears to come out of left field. It would perhaps work better in Titus’s hands. A couple of leaps of faith as far as audience following the story goes, are taken boldly and with the help of an enjoyable soundtrack, we usually know whereabouts in time and space we are.

What I love about this work is that we see Rubinstein brought to life without the inclusion of conventional scenes requiring additional characters offering extraneous detail. This approach can be applied more fully yet and with a little bit of whittling, bring the piece up to a sharper, snappier pace. It’s excellent fodder for actors, beautifully written. I should mention (or perhaps I should not!), that when a friend mentioned after the show the need for a couple of rewrites to the playwright, Denver laughed and said warily over her champagne, “Rewrites? Don’t talk to me about rewrites!” But I’d like to see this play again, after said rewrites and see if it doesn’t tell a tighter, more intriguing story.  Rubinstein is so deliciously, stylishly drawn that we need to hear only a little from everybody else. Much like Denver’s Into the Mist, which featured Joy Marshall as the comedy actress Margaret Rutherford, That Woman is a showcase for the actress who plays Madame. And it is Madame’s story that interests me most.

Not only for the ladies, That Woman boasts fabulous fully drawn characters and a fascinating story of what it takes to make a single life a success. That Woman breathes new, fashionable life into the Sunshine Coast theatre scene. If you haven’t been to see anything for a while it’s time to dress up and head to Lind Lane Theatre to catch the world premiere run of Jo Denver’s enlightening and highly entertaining That Woman.

P.S. Let’s hope we see the musical version up on its feet soon too!

Gala Opening Night: Friday 21 September at 8pm – Tickets $28

Season Continues: September 22, 26, 28 & 29 at 8pm

Matinees: September 23 & 29 at 2pm

Tickets $22 concessions apply


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