Who run the world? Painted ladies. And this year’s Fringe production of the same name by Too Much Damn (TMD) Theater rode that point home, in more ways than one. Set in a nameless one-horse town, Painted Ladies: Bosses of the Wild West is the brainchild of writers Dara A. Gold and Marketa S. Nicholson that has some fun playing with the female side of Horace Greeley’s call to “Go West, young man.” Often overlooked or regarded as one-note pretty faces, these Painted Ladies set out to prove that with passion, will, and boobs of steel, there’s nothing the women of the West couldn’t weather.
First we have Madame Josephine (Nicholson), a cool-headed businesswoman who has built an empire and isn’t about to let a drunk customer, upright townsperson, or mysterious visitor take her down. Joining her at the Sweet Fall Saloon was her main lady, Lou-Anne Rose (Gold), whose red hair was an outer representation of the brassy freedom she reclaimed for herself, and Dahlia (Carmen Hernandez) the beautiful and secretive newcomer who seems too good to be true. Victoria (also played by Hernandez), a pious and tightly wound townswoman, represents the games that can be played when love and loyalty are on the line. And finally, the many faces of Sal/Sheriff/Jim/Leroy (Ian Nance) managed to roll all of the different types of men who frequented the saloon into one with the switch of an apron or hat.
If there was one suggestion I could immediately impart to Director Merancia Noelsaint, however, it would be to slow down. The show is sprinkled with witty lines but the rapid pace combined with thick southern accents made it hard for me to follow even some of the basic plot points. I suggest embracing silence and maybe add a few pointed standoffs from the Western genre, which seem ripe for exploration here. This is a wholly woman’s story and I applaud the effort to flip Westerns on their heads; making the story women-dominated, where the men are stock characters and interchangeable. (In fact, that flip plays quite well since the men who visit Madame Josephine’s establishment are just as faceless to the Painted Ladies as the women in your average Western movie were to John Wayne). However, there were so many moving pieces, so many details that I was unable to hone in on what was important and left confused.
To remedy this, one had to look no further than the last few scenes though, where there were some well-balanced moments of exposition and breaking the fourth wall. These respites allowed the audience time to reflect on the rather extraordinary accomplishments of these women; carving their own destiny out of literally nothing. Taking that as an example and working backwards to cut to the quick of each scene would do far more to illuminate these fiery characters than the extra lines ever could.
One thing that absolutely lived up to the Wild West reputation was the very interactive and “we’re here to have a good time” audience participation sections that ran through the performance. As in the saloons that we’ve seen in Westerns (and experienced in AdMo on a Saturday night) those who sit near the front or the aisles should prepare themselves for a stage debut if they are feeling brave.
An interesting premise that is worth sticking with to refine, Painted Ladies tips its hat and twirls its skirt at the ladies who made the Wild West more colorful.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Painted Ladies: Bosses of the Wild West plays through July 27, 2018, at Christ United Methodist Church – 900 4th St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, purchase them at the door, or go online.