Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Other than that, Miss Keene, how'd you like the audience?

I should pay closer attention.  Here at City Lit we have closed our Hallowe'en show, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and our next production, a world premiere adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, doesn't open until late February.  In the meantime, we have booked the stage out to a series of itinerant companies for their productions.  First up is a company we like a lot, Project 891.  But I hadn't even noticed that the show they're producing here is a Civil War-related play!

It's Our Leading Lady by noted high-camp farceur Charles Busch, about Laura Keene, the producer and star of the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865.  I'm not familiar with it, except by reputation, but I'm told that the first act is a backstage comedy showing us Keene's company in rehearsal for that performance, focusing on Keene as larger-than-life diva; Busch's play turns more serious in Act Two after John Wilkes Booth has interrupted the performance.

Laura Keene, circa 1856
Comedically seems like the right way to approach Laura Keene.  Though she is a genuinely important figure in 19th Century theatre--she was the first female actor-manager in America, she helped establish New York City as a commercial theatre center,and she came up with the idea of Saturday matinees so women could attend the theatre unescorted--there is a certain amount of dark farce to her cameo role in the Lincoln assassination.  She was backstage waiting to make an entrance when the shot was fired, and is credited with doing much to calm the crowd in the immediate chaos that followed.  But then she seems to strive to make the evening's big event about her:  she commandeered a jug of water, which she used as her ticket past the throng of excited rubber-neckers into the presidential box where Lincoln and Major Rathbone were being treated by doctors who had been in the audience.  Accounts differ as to what happened next, but the most reliable witness seems to be Dr. Charles Leale, who had just performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Lincoln and was the doctor who pronounced Lincoln's wound to be fatal:  "Laura Keene appealed to me to allow her to hold the president's head.  I granted the request, and she sat on the floor of the box and held his head in her lap."   This was within five minutes or so of the shot. 

You've got to give Charles Busch credit for recognizing the self-serving grande dame at the bottom of Keene's remarkable presence of mind that night, and for being brave enough to make it the subject of a comedy.  It's hard to see how shifting Lincoln's wounded head could have provided the president with either comfort or medical benefit.  But it did put Laura Keene back at center stage where she was used to being, and there's certainly something darkly comic about her drive to do that.

Our Leading Lady runs November 4 through December 4.  Don't call City Lit for tickets; it's not our show.  Project 891's box office number is 773-853-3210.

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