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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
Once again Patrick Brennan has adapted his basic scenic configuration to fit the story. Since Cassandra Speaks has just one actor on stage, unlike the more fully populated Parasite Drag and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Brennan has compensated with the most richly furnished and detailed set yet. And, while the characters in the previous plays revolved around fictional characters, Dorothy Thompson was very much a real person, a larger than life one at that given her ground breaking place in the history of women journalists.
As characterized by playwright Norman Plotkin and magnificently portrayed by Tod Randolph, Thompson's life was certain rich and interesting enough to be worth dramatizing. She was a staunch early feminist, a passionate champion for human rights most famously illustrated by her fierce Cassandra efforts to alert the world to Hitler's demonical plans for conquering the world and destroying the Jews. (It was her her Cassandra-like writings about the rising tide of evil in Germany and even Japan's aggressive actions that accounts for the title of Peter Kurth's biography, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson which served as the foundation for Plotkin's play). The maps and book filled shelves are apt replacements of the kitchens in the other plays in repertory with Cassandra Speaks. Yet Thompson was very much a woman with strong emotional and sexual needs even though she at one point during her pre-nuptial ruminations she rants "Why the hell do I need a man? Why should it be that a woman spends half her life having trouble with men. Why should it be that where you look for happiness all you find is grief?"
Despite Randolph's extraordinary ability to hold the stage single-handedly and an anecdote rich and historically potent text and Nicole Ricciardi's fluid direction, Cassandra Speaks does not escape the problem that dogs most solo plays: The awkwardness of having that solo performer on stage and start talking to us, expecting us to buy into this artificial structure and become not just the audience but active participants — in short, the missing on stage colleagues. In this case, the lights come up on Randolph working at her desk wordlessly, then seemingly becoming aware of the audience just as the telephone rings so that her first words are asking us to hold on while she answers. She then has the first of several situation establishing conversations with an unseen secretary (a popular device for monologues about famous people) and then facing and addressing us.
This setup is as awkward as any I've seen but pro that she is, Randolph manages to make it forgiveable. What follows is a combination discourse about the present circumstances (her anxiety of the impending wedding) plus flashbacks to some of the most fascination aspects of her private and public life. And what a life it is. As a foreign correspondent with many years of being stationed in Berlin she met Hitler and got herself expelled from Germany. There are anecdotes involving the likes of Sigmund Freud and Edna St. Vincent Millay and of course, there's her love life. Her first marriage to a too sexually adventurous man adds a rather humorous touch. Husband number two, novelist Sinclair Lewis was faithful but a drunk and insecure about her fame despite his own success as a Nobel prize winning novelist. The doubts stirred by reminiscences about her failed marriages make her decision about the about to happen wedding the natural finale.
While famous in her day, Dorothy Thompson is hardly a household name these days, especially for young people. Thus Cassandra Speaks is a fine opportunity to become acquainted with this pioneering journalist. And while she'll continue her Dorothy Thompson role through September 2nd, she'll also display her solo performance virtuosity as Edith Wharton in The Inner House, an adaptation based on Wharton's own autobiography (see www.whartonsalon.org for details).
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