Stage & Dance

Comedy draws drama, laughs from scene of Lincoln's assassination

Sasha Halvorsen, left, as Clementine gets advice from Danby Carter's Laura Keene in Our Leading Lady.  Halvorsen saw the play in New York and suggested it to her father, Scott Turner, who is directing the play.
Sasha Halvorsen, left, as Clementine gets advice from Danby Carter's Laura Keene in Our Leading Lady. Halvorsen saw the play in New York and suggested it to her father, Scott Turner, who is directing the play. Lexington Herald-Leader

Sasha Halvorsen went to the theater in New York one night and saw a play she just had to be in. It was the off-Broadway production of Our Leading Lady starring Kate Mulgrew.

The show is a backstage comedy set amid the most tragic day in American theater and one of the most tragic days in the nation's history: April 14, 1865, the night John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln as Lincoln watched a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

In Charles Busch's play, the shooting is not just a national tragedy. It's a major interruption in the burgeoning career of pioneering actress Laura Keene, who hopes the president's presence at the performance of Our American Cousin — in which Keene starred — will catapult her and her company's fortunes.

"I wanted to see it because Kate Mulgrew was in it and I love Kate Mulgrew," said Halvorsen, who graduated from Eastern Kentucky University last year. "But I ended up falling in love with the play. The comedic moments were so much fun, and the dramatic moments were so truthful and tragic."

She wanted to see a Central Kentucky performance of the show, and she had a connection to make it happen: her dad.

Scott Turner has been an active part of Studio Players the past few years as an actor, producer and director. He read the script and was immediately sold.

"It was a very fun read, a fun play," Turner says of the script, which joins Psycho Beach Party and the Tony-nominated The Tale of the Allergist's Wife in Busch's oeuvre. "But it was also very touching.

"It's really the story of a very powerful, capable woman whose grand plans are derailed by a national tragedy."

Our Leading Lady opens this weekend at Studio Players, with Halvorsen in a supporting role.

The real-life Keene was a revered actress and ground-breaking impresario, introducing innovations including Saturday matinees, so women could go to theaters unescorted. One of her plans, to have theaters across the country open the same play on the same day, didn't work so well for the stage, but it proved to be an enduring model for the movie industry.

When we meet Keene in the play, at Ford's Theatre in 1865, she is in the midst of one of her big schemes, to buy the theater and bring in her own company of actors. A perfect boost to this plan is having the president, on the heels of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, attend her show. But the established acting troupe is wise to her plans, and some harbor Southern sympathies that make the prospect of performing for the president most unattractive.

Turner says the show succeeds at combining the comedy with tragedy by not tying them too closely together.

"It's a comedy, but it does have dramatic moments," Turner says. "The hardest part has been not to let the fact the play deals with the assassination of one of our great presidents overshadow the fact that it's really about these people who, by luck, happen to be at Ford's Theatre presenting a play, just the same way there were hundreds of people there to catch a show, and the president just ended up assassinated."

The first act deals with the backstage drama, including Keene's affair with actor Harry Hawke (Randy Hall) and battles between Keene and the theater's house diva, Verbena (Sharon Sikorski), and Verbena's husband, Gavin (David Senatore). Other story lines concern Keene's attempt to buy the theater and what that might mean to the resident actors, and her evolving relationship with her assistant (Jessica Slaton), whom she thought was Chinese but was actually black and reveals herself as the war ends.

At the end of Act I, Lincoln is shot. Act II shows the aftermath, as members of the cast are questioned and Keene attempts to go on with her career.

"It was her company," says Danby Carter, who plays Keene. "She became associated in the public mind with the tragic event. That was a great hardship on her because here she had been this great star, and now people were saying, 'Oh, no, We don't want you anymore, because you remind us of this tragic event.' And it was through no fault of her own."

Keene is the first leading role since the mid-1990s for Carter, who directs the Lexington Vintage Dance troupe. She says she was attracted to the show by its strong leading lady, but Carter emphasizes that it is an ensemble cast. That cast includes Halvorsen as Clementine, the drunken reluctant ingenue whom Keene helps.

"It's a lot of fun," Halvorsen says backstage, already buttoned into her hoop skirt for a dress rehearsal. "I get to stumble around and be funny. But the best part is we're doing this show."

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