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Founders Festival

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 18, 2013

Founders Festival

Leah Reddy, Alyssa Simon, Deborah White, Karla Hendrick, Ashley Denise Robinson and Wendy Merritt in a My First Lady

I wasn't expecting that the most cogent and up-to-the-minute debate about the Second Amendment I'd hear this week would be on the stage of the Metropolitan Playhouse, carried out by America's first First Ladies—Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and Thomas Jefferson's two daughters Patsy and Polly. Abigail contemplates the possibility that it might "lead to a powerful alliance that will control gun laws and encourage everyone to own guns to protect themselves against their neighbors"; Martha assures her that it takes so long to load and fire a musket that "by the time you've loaded the damn thing, your fit will have fizzled." And then Dolley opines:

DOLLEY: Well, I for one like to protect myself. That’s why we purchased two cannons. We have no idea how to use them yet, but we’ve stocked up on cannon balls and we’re ready if anyone tries to attack us.
PATSY: Smart! But why two cannons?
DOLLEY: One for the bedroom. In case a nefarious intruder enters at night.

The right to bear arms isn't the only topic on the mind of playwright David Koteles; far from it. In his brilliant and delicious new satire My First Lady, which is being presented by JAJ Productions as part of Metropolitan's Founders Festival, his versions of our Founding Mothers consider everything from slavery to women's rights to Marie Antoinette to where George Washington got those famous false teeth. This one-act, which takes place at a probably imaginary tea party at the White House on the day of Thomas Jefferson's first inauguration (March 4, 1801), explores and explodes much that is mythic in American culture through the witty and sometimes strained banter of these women, all remarkable in their ways and, for the most part, all largely forgotten. (Do we remember Mrs. Madison more for her legendary saving of a painting or for her namesake mass marketed cakes and pies?)

There's one other character in this play, and she makes the piece incendiary: Sally Hemmings, ostensibly Polly's slave, perhaps has the strongest claim of all to the title of First Lady. One of the strengths of Koteles's script is that it presents many sides to the complicated relationship between "Master Jefferson" and this woman he owns who loves him and whom, she assures us, he loves. Patsy and Polly are outraged and embarrassed by Sally, while Abigail and Martha—older and more experienced—wonder whether Tom's private and public affirmations of equality and freedom and so on are really to be trusted.

This is a smart, insightful, and extremely funny play, puncturing our received wisdom just as the best satire should. It plays only three more times at the Founders Festival, but I hope it goes on to a long life beyond. It's given an exemplary production here, under the expert and entirely simpatico direction of Jason Jacobs (he and Koteles collaborated years ago on the widely acclaimed Ionesco parody, Bald Diva!) Sharply designed by Louisa Galante (costumes, which frequently reminded me of iconic portraits of the First Ladies) and Matthew Pritchard (sound), it features a superlative ensemble, with the formidable Wendy Merritt and Deborah White both solid and hilarious as Martha and Abigail, Alyssa Simon and Leah Reddy perfect as squabbling siblings Patsy and Polly, Karla Hendrick appropriately annoying as the opportunistic Dolley, and Ashley Denise Robinson exuding quiet dignity and strength as Sally.

My First Lady is just one of seven different presentations in the Founders Festival, which is Metropolitan's eighth annual installment of their "living literature" series, dedicated to bringing the words and personalities of America's seminal writers and thinkers to the contemporary stage. The festival also includes new plays from Dan Evans, LuLu LoLo, Andrea Pinyan, Vladimir Zelevinksy, Zero Boy, and the New York Neo-Futurists, along with another that I caught the same evening as My First Lady, Montgomery Sutton's Your Colonel. The first in a planned nine-part serial about the life of Aaron Burr, Your Colonel is set in July 1776 in New York City, and depicts the adventures, romantic and wartime, of the 20-year-old Burr, then an aide to General Washington. Burr is enmeshed in schemes to prevent a planned assassination attempt on his commander and is courting two young ladies simultaneously, one the daughter of his host General Israel Putnam, the other the daughter of a British officer. I applaud Sutton's intention and ambition, but I found Your Colonel a bit confusing to follow (some of this due to hard-to-understand pre-recorded or offstage dialogue); I also was taken out of the piece by the use of anachronistic dialogue (was the word "feedback" in use back then, for example?). The play is directed by Joshua Luria, and features a hard-working cast of six, of whom Heather Cunningham as Martha Washington was, for me, the standout.

The beauty of an event like the Founders Festival is the variety and diversity of what's on offer; visit the website to learn more about all of the shows.