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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: 'The Mistress Cycle'

The “Mistress Cycle” cast, from the left: Julia Capizzi (Anais Nin), Iyona Blake (LuLu White), Erica Clare (Tess Walker), Abby Middleton (Diane de Poitiers), and Justine Icy Moral (Ching). [Keith Water, Kx Photography]
By David Siegel

Illuminating what has been in the shadows, or usually whispered about, a new musical offers a delicately rendered look at the harsh realities women have faced over the centuries when viewed as the “other woman.”

The musical is “The Mistress Cycle,” and it’s having its D.C. area premiere at the Creative Cauldron in Falls Church.

From Biblical times to the present day, the “other” woman has been tagged with many a nasty term: paramour, concubine, adulteress, and even whore. Some are called out by their names at the top of the production, including Delilah, Jezebel, and Camilla Parker Bowles.

What is unique about “The Mistress Cycle” is that it presents a much different image of the “other” woman. This story is told from her point of view. It tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, as the opening song, “This is How It Starts,” makes clear.

Full of sharp renderings under the incisive, reverent, and precise direction of Creative Cauldron resident director Matt Conner, five actors quietly and insightfully light up the venue’s intimate Cay Wiant Black Box Theater.

“The Mistress Cycle” was first produced about a decade ago in the Chicago area. The book and lyrics are by Beth Blatt, and the music is by Jenny Giering, both winners of Jonathan Larson grants. They are likely unknown to D.C. area audiences; this smoothly flowing production of a non-traditional musical should change that.

The five characters in “The Mistress Cycle” include historical and fictional women and are played by a mix of veterans and newcomers. Separately, and as an ensemble, their voices are terrific. They bring a quiet storm of emotion befitting each of the characters depicted. There are no weeping victims.

Signature Theater and Creative Cauldron veteran Iyona Blake plays Lulu White, a turn-of-the-century “madame” who wants to have a better life. She loses her heart and her savings to a man who said he loved her and promised her the world, but didn’t deliver either.

Blake is a solid life force – whether singing or delivering dialogue full of intense verve. When she sings about her life and that of other women (“Divine”), she is a vivacious presence. Then as the man she loves damages her, she becomes a woman of melancholy, hoping for survival from her humiliation (“Mercy, Mercy”).

Local veteran Justine Icy Moral plays Ching, an innocent 14-year-old who is sold by her own family to become a concubine in 12th century China. Moral is so very expressive and affecting as she delivers her wretched story in dialogue and song. When she sings about her place in life, “One In a Line,” it is one of the high points of the evening. Moral gives a rendition that is moving, desperate, and fierce.

New to the Creative Cauldron, Abby Middleton portrays the historical figure Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of a real-life 20-years-younger Henri II of France in the 16th century. In love with the king, de Poitiers finds herself having to care for the ailing queen. As a consort to the king, that is all she can do. Middleton delivers “I Had You” as her love letter to her situation with sweet dignity.

Erica Clare plays Tess, a character of the “now.” She is a struggling 30-something Manhattan “hoping-to-make-it” photographer.

The character of Tess has the most bite in her musical numbers. Singing the wry lyrics in “Death by a Thousand Cuts” (“To David, who said I was a dyke when I wouldn’t sleep with him on the first date/ To Damon, who said, ‘Why not? Life’s short,’ then gave me a disease when I slept with him on the first date”), her eyes radiate confusion, hurt, pain, and anger. (And for me, the recent revelations of even more male abusive behavior toward women came quickly to mind — though as “The Mistress Cycle” depicts, this has been a truth for many, many centuries.)

Julia Capizzi portrays the famed, historic 20th century figure, Anais Nin. Reading from Nin’s famed diaries about her exploits using sensuality as a weapon, Capizzi gives off soft sparks. But when she offers up a musical tribute to her dying father called “Papa,” well, it is truly an unexpected lesson in how a father can mold a child, for better or worse.

The creative team for “The Mistress Cycle” includes Piero Bonamico as musical director. His piano style drives each musical vignette, lifting each lyric into an intimate space without overwhelming the singer or the audience.

Margie Jervis’ set designs uses the intimate Creative Cauldron space to advantage, including as the central set piece a riser that becomes a bed. Jervis is also the costume designer, and her costumes for each character work seamlessly, befitting well time, place, and temperament. The black leathers of the character Tess and the loose-fitting cotton and flowing silk garments for the character Ching were striking. Lynn Joslin’s lighting design showcases each actor in a soft palette of pinks and deep reds.

“The Mistress Cycle” is a fine, well-recommended musical. It is storytelling about heartbreak, desperation, and the will to survive on an intimate scale. It also fits well with Creative Cauldron’s Bold New Works series of musicals – including “The Turn of the Screw” (2015), “Monsters of the Villa Diodati” (2016), and “Kaleidoscope” (2017) – that center on women’s stories and journeys through musical theater.

When and where: “The Mistress Cycle” plays through Oct. 29 at Creative Cauldron, 410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church. Performances are 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $30 ($26 for seniors and military, $20 for students). Purchase tickets online or call the box office, 571-239-5288.

This piece is from a review by David Siegel posted Oct. 10 in DC Metro Theater Arts.

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