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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky lends itself to the stage. A phenomenal Russian woman of the late nineteeth and early twentieth century. she knew no limits: concert pianist, revolutionary soldier, world traveler, mistress of the occult, and the creator of Theosophy, "the science of religion" as she called it, which has hundreds of thousands of followers even today. Yet during her lifetime, she was dogged by scandal, betrayed by her closest associate, poverty-stricken, ill and lonely. My play asks this question: was she simply too strong for her times? Did her eccentricities bring about her downfall? And would it be true, even today, that a woman who believed in universal brotherhood and preached the root connection of all the world's religions would also be reviled?While I was curious about Madame Blavatsky's story and Theosophy about which I admit I knew very little, A Dangerous Personality did not prove to be the play to deepen my knowledge of Theosophy or give me a more in-depth, unbiased understanding of Blavatsky' as a legendary figure (Bingham doesn't omit the criticisms of those who thought her a charlatan, but she's definitely championing her as a misunderstood woman. I can't even say that the play is entertaining despite its flaws.
Jodie Lynne McClintock, an experienced actress who we've admired as a support player at the Mint Theater and as a major player in Daisy in Dreamtime, is miscast in a role calling for a hugely charismatic persona. As written and portrayed, Blavatsky is less a "dangerous personality" than a petulant woman looking a bit like Queen Victoria and, thanks to a horrible brillo colored wig, appearing to be far older than the mid-40s she's supposed to be.
But the real problem lies in the play itself, a scattershot affair which presents Blavatsky as a bossy cult leader who's herself in thall to an other worldly "master" who announces himself with gold lettering suddenly appearing on a wall, then dictates her published works to her. He also helps her to perform little miracles like hemming towels after she's locked them in a cabinet (no, he doesn't do windows!) Thus invisibly empowered, the guru insists that her disciples prove their allegiance by not even holding on to pictures of their children. Her personality is such as to make us wonder, not why she lost the power struggle for leadership of the Theosophy organization, but how she became its queen bee to start with.
While Thomas Edison (Sheffield Chastain), a Blavatsky's enthusiast makes a brief and amusing appearance to demonstrate his electric pen and his gramophone, the other actors are stuck in underdeveloped roles. Lisa Bostnar, an actress I've always liked, is pretty much reduced to looking beautiful. Steve Brady appears briefly as a missionary named Reverend Hiram Bingham who may or may not be a relative of the playwright's (she not been averse to writing about her kinfolks, warts and all). Graeme Malcom's General Henry Steel Olcott does have the needed charisma to lead a new movement but he too turns out to be a less than convincgly written character.
It says something about the play's overall assets that the most appealing character is an Irish maid quaintly named Little Dorritt. As portrayed by Nancy Anderson, usually seen in musicals, this is also the most winning performance. The lush, colorful scenery and costumes also make a strong impression — alas, stronger than this too talky and disappointingly underwhelming play. You can learn more about Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky from Wikipedia, which seems to be the main source for the production's program notes.
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