by Lynn on April 19, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont. A Nightwood Theatre production in association with VideoCabaret. Plays until April 21, 2024.

Written by Rose Napoli

Directed by Andrea Donaldson

Set, costumes and props designed by Astrid Janson, Abby Esteireiro and Merle Harley

Lighting by Rebecca Vandevelde

Sound by Olivia Wheeler

Cast: Karl Ang

Wayne Burns

Izad Etemadi

Farhang Ghajar

Rose Napoli

Nancy Palk

Irreverent, bold, witty, contemporary, in need of tightening, but still a fascinating endeavor by the gifted Rose Napoli, into the remarkable life of Margaret Cavendish (Mad Madge).

The Story. We are in the 17th century in England. Margaret Lucas’s father has died leaving the family penniless, unless Margaret marries a rich man. She doesn’t want that. She does not want to be submerged in a man’s life. She wants independence from men. She wants notoriety. She wants to be seen on her own terms. Simply put, she wants fame.

She decides to go to London to become a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta, the widow of Charles I. Henrietta is exiled to France and Margaret goes with her. They have a rapport. Margaret is witty, smart and bold. Henrietta is grieving and constipated. Margaret offers friendship for the former, and (surprisingly) relief from the latter.

They return to England. Margaret forms a friendship with William Cavendish, a suitor of the Queen. The friendship goes deeper. Margaret proves to be a soulmate to William. But there is that business of wanting fame. During William’s opening night, of a play he wrote and stars in, Margaret caused a stir by appearing in the audience, topless with her nipples painted red. Margaret and William had words. Henrietta makes William the Duke of Newcastle and sends him there. Margaret’s life and accomplishments are huge. In twenty-seven months she writes: “The Blazing World” believed to be perhaps the first example of science fiction in English; books of poetry, essays, letters, etc.  

The Production. Standing at the side of the playing space, Margaret (Rose Napoli) makes her dramatic entrance at the top of the production, smiling and topless. Her nipples and areola are painted black. She then moves to the center of the playing area—a large square–so everybody can get a good look and then the show can progress with an exhale. Margaret the free spirit, the confident woman, is established instantly. She then puts on her ‘corset’ and pulls up the rest of her stylish dress that has been billowing at her waist.

Rose Napoli plays Margaret with wit, confidence and frustration. She challenges the social constraints in which she must live—getting married, subservient to her husband with no shared opinions or thoughts. She doesn’t want it. Napoli presents a woman with a brain and attitude. She thinks on her feet and has a nimble mind that can wrangle with any man, and charm the most powerful woman, Henrietta.

Nancy Palk plays: Pye, Margaret’s simple eleven-year-old sister, arrogant, condescending Samuel Pepys, and Queen Henrietta. In each case Nancy Palk gives a closely observed, fully detailed performance of these disparate characters. While Palk is hugely accomplished as Pye and Pepys, she shines as Henrietta. The language is sharply witty, irreverent, sexually vivid and hilarious. A constipated Queen on a throne-like commode, trading witticisms with her lady-in-waiting, while trying ‘to lay down a barrage,’ is pretty funny.

The production plays impishly with gender roles, cross-dressing, sexuality and mores of the day. Margaret’s mother Elizabeth is played with a hint of a whine by Izad Etemadi in flowing frock and full beard. Elizabeth knows the society in which she lives, and knows that to get ahead Rose must marry. Later Izad Etemadi will play Judy, one of Henrietta’s spoiled ladies-in-waiting, along with Wayne Burns who plays Trudy. Both Judy and Trudy are spoiled, nasty twits who try to give grief to Margaret. Wayne Burns also plays Thomas, Margaret’s supportive brother. Farhang Ghajar plays Margaret’s exasperated brother and various other men who feel women should keep in their place. Karl Ang plays William, Margaret’s intellectual equal. He is supportive, charmed by this willful, smart woman, modern, in that he is not macho nor expects Margaret to be subservient.

Astrid Janson, Abbey Esteireiro and Merle Harley are three gifted souls credited with designing the sets, costumes and props for Mad Madge. But the unmistakable witty, wild imagination of Astrid Janson (so prevalent in past VideoCabaret productions and an associate producer with this show) is everywhere here from the frocks to the wild head pieces to the elaborate commode and other props.

 Director Andrea Donaldson keeps the pace moving and the laughs almost constant. She also accentuates the seriousness of Margaret’s arguments regarding women. And while presenting the production in the round is bold, I found it an unfortunate decision because the Franco Boni Theatre is an unforgiving space for sound. If a character turns away from the audience, audibility suffers. Often when a character faces a section of the audience the actor—Rose Napoli for example—tended to push the voice to be heard. Balance is the trick. Making the audience listen to the character is also better than making the audience hear the actor by bellowing. Also having an underscore of music in some scenes is not helpful for hearing.

Rose Napoli has written a bracing, witty, rich play about an obscure but fascinating woman in history. The ideas fly through the air regarding feminism, sexuality, constipation, women’s rights, exhibitionism and fame. The programme note is coy in saying that they were going for truth rather than accuracy with Mad Madge. In the play Margaret is invited to the Royal Society by Samuel Pepys—ostensibly she thinks for her scientific ideas. The outcome is something else. Is that the truth? A fiction of a clever playwright? I wonder.

There are many modern references in the play from a film with seductive dancing to a reference to a guru sparking joy with neatness. While the play stretched to two and a half hours (with intermission) perhaps some judicious editing is in order.   

Comment. Rose Napoli has done a wonderful thing in introducing audiences to this wit and thinker known as Margaret Cavendish. Margaret wrote poetry, a novel of wild imagination in “The Blazing World” with an avoidance of meaningful punctuation, about a woman who was spirited away to the North Pole by a man who was besotted by her-a novel full of wild imagination; essays, letters and displayed a sharp mind. If one is lucky and has access, her books are available from university libraries.

I would not call her an influencer, as Napoli does in the play—who would Margaret actually influence if women were not taken seriously. Interestingly Margaret wanted fame in order to voice her thoughts. Ironically we live at a time when people are famous for being famous and little else. Like all good playwrights, Rose Napoli makes one curious to find out not only the truth about Margaret Cavendish, but also the facts. While I have concerns with the play and production, I’m glad I saw it. Margaret Cavendish is fascinating.  

A Nightwood Theatre production in association with VideoCabaret.

Plays until April 21, 2024

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.