The show must go on, but what if that show is marred by one of the greatest tragedies in American history?
Everyone knows that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while attending the theater, and by an actor no less, but what show? And who were the players?
Such is the premise of Studio Players' fascinating, if uneven, production of Our Leading Lady.
Charles Busch's play follows the behind-the-scenes antics of a troupe of Ford's Theatre actors as they prepare for Our American Cousin, the show Lincoln would fatefully attend.
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Famous real-life actress Laura Keene (played by Danby Carter), has been brought in from New York to play the lead role and whip the ensemble into president-worthy shape.
Keene's preening, swooning, gargantuan ego is matched only by her ambition. History will remember her as the actress who cradled Lincoln's wounded head in the balcony, but Busch pays retrospective homage to her and, in a wider sense, theater of another era.
Scott Turner's direction of Our Leading Lady is spirited but uneven, as is the cast's performance. You can't always blame the playwright, but this is largely due to Busch's indecision about what the play is trying to accomplish. Is it a campy send-up of the theater? Is it a drama about how history and circumstance dictate for us all to play roles to make our own destiny? The show lurches back and forth between purposes, and it takes us in some fun, interesting and occasionally moving directions, but it lacks cohesion.
At Thursday's opening-night performance, stalled momentum and stiff acting occasionally plagued the show, particularly in its opening scene. However, since the first scene is about a group of mediocre actors rehearsing a tired show, some awkwardness is merited. It ends with the introduction of Keene's dresser and servant Madame Wu Chan, a Chinese stereotype in a bad wig.
Thankfully, all of this bad acting is, for the most part, good acting, as it is mercifully revealed that Wu Chan (Jessica Slaton) is an escaped slave from Georgia pretending to "pass" as Chinese. Likewise, each character is intentionally disguised in one way or another, and as the scenes progress, the layers of disguise are peeled away and the show itself gains warmth and momentum.
Carter and Slaton are a compelling duo as Keene and Wu Chan. Busch designed Keene's character to "carry" the show, much like in real life, and Carter succeeds with aplomb. As an overly polished grand dame of the theater, Carter's character over-emotes, hyper-enunciates, and conducts artistic inspiration and underhanded conniving with effortless flourish and charm. Slaton's comical Wu Chan ruse is a different kind of ridiculous than Keene's behavior, but both are acting, hiding dangerous secrets, as is hauntingly revealed in the second act. Ironically, the more each woman drops the act, the more fascinating each becomes.
Only two scenes are devoted to the gravity of the president's death, with the final scene — an interrogation of the troupe by the government — dedicated to the fictional actors' quick return to playing roles. Then, the play returns to being a humorous love letter to the theater. Many of the actors steal quotes from other plays in their dramatic responses to the interrogator. Carter and Sheila Miller, as the aging actress Maude Bentley, do this with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and a flair for timing.
Not unlike the characters that populate it, Our Leading Lady has some identity problems, but it offers a fascinating glimpse at some of the forgotten players behind a momentous evening at the theater.