Illuminating what has been in the shadows, or usually whispered about, Creative Cauldron has provided a delicately rendered musical about the harsh realities women have faced over the centuries when viewed as the “other” woman. Having its DC area premiere, the musical is The Mistress Cycle.
From ancient Biblical times to the very present 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 even Camilla Parker Bowles.
What is unique about The Mistress Cycle; it presents a much different image of the “other” woman. It is from her point of view. And more, The Mistress Cycle is musical story-telling 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, insightfully light up the intimate Cay Wiant Black Box Theater at the Creative Cauldron.
First produced about a decade ago in the Chicago area, the 16-song The Mistress Cycle has book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson Grants recipients Beth Blatt and music by Jenny Giering. Both are likely unknown to many DC area audiences. This smoothly flowing production of a non-traditional musical should change that.
for a different take on The Mistress Cycle, check out Julia L. Exline’s review here
Of The Mistress Cycle’s five characters, several are historical in nature and the others fictional representation of women’s life experiences. Conner has cast veterans and newcomers alike for The Mistress Cycle. 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.
The cast includes Signature and Creative Cauldron veteran Iyona Blake. She 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 in the production 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 to become a concubine by her own family. The time is 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 King Henri, de Poitiers finds herself having to keep Henri’s wife, the Queen, alive through Scarlet Fever. 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, another Creative Cauldron newcomer, has credits with Signature and Toby’s to name a several venues. 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 being pissed off. (And for me, the recent revelations of even more male abusive behavior toward women came quickly to my mind — though as The Mistress Cycle depicts, this has been a truth for many, many centuries)
Julia Capizzi, another newcomer to Creative Cauldron, 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 the intimate space without overwhelming the singer or the audience. Margie Jervis is the Scenic and Costume Designer. Her set uses the intimate Creative Cauldron space to advantage, including a central set piece, a riser that becomes a bed. Her costume designs 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 does well showcasing each of the actors in soft palette of pinks and stronger deep reds when warranted by the songs.
The Mistress Cycle is a fine, well-recommended musical. It is story-telling about heartbreak, desperation, and the will to survive on an intimate scale. It also fits well with the Creative Cauldron’s Bold New Works series of musicals such as The Turn of the Screw (2015), Monsters of the Villa Diodati (2016), and Kaleidoscope (2017), each centering on women’s stories and journeys through musical theater.
The Mistress Cycle may be a decade old and just making it to the DC area, but the lyrics of “Are You Me,” sung by the entire ensemble had many in the audience lean forward in order to not miss a word: “You’re broke, he’s loaded; you’re lonely, he’s sweet as the day is long.” Such an age old siren refrain. Thank you to Creative Cauldron for spotting this musical and bringing a full production to the DC area. If you are unfamiliar with Creative Cauldron or the Northern Virginia area as one of your regular theater haunts, take a ride and explore.
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.