It truly is amazing to think that as recently as a century-and-a-half ago, our womenfolk of the species were considered non-persons. Oh, sure, they could cook and clean and be whores in the bedroom when their men demanded it, besides mothering children and singlehandedly holding together the fabric of our nation with or without Betsy Ross sewing the flag, but they didn't even score the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920. This is one of the reasons why Victoria Woodhull has emerged as such a legendary figure of
history; clairvoyant as a child and sexually abused by her snake oil salesman of a father and countless others while he exploited her for his financial mobility, she ultimately became the first woman to run for US President against General Grant (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate), besides the first to run a brokerage firm and a major weekly newspaper in New York, with her sister Tennessee Claflin (who, in turn, was the mistress of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt). She also withstood a grueling trial and temporary prison sentence when accused of spreading pornographic content through the mail system, which was later dismissed. And while she never claimed not to have at times been a prostitute or a most-outspoken proponent of free love, the simple fact is that she was, as a wise person once said, "a woman so ahead of her time, that time has yet to catch up." Such are the themes explored in Satan's Whore: Victoria Woodhull, a new play running at Theater For The New City, with a brilliant script by Richard Geha and directed by Lissa Moira. And while not every element of the show works to the hilt, it will be a grateful audience who catches the show between now and when it closes on April 8th, unless it should possibly return at a later time to TNC or elsewhere. This is, very simply, an extremely important show to catch.
At the outset, the show is a bit difficult to follow; much of it is told in disjointed flashback sequences and doesn't really become cohesive until Mrs. Woodhull's meeting in the third scene with journalist Theodore Tilton, who is assigned to write her biography (and with whom she subsequently has an affair, after we learn that his wife Elizabeth, aka Libbie, had an affair with his best friend, the renowned religionist Henry Ward Beecher (and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe). We soon learn that Mrs. Woodhull herself is no stranger to the carnal arts regardless of her childhood; she has worked as a cigar salesgirl forced to endure the advances of so-called gentlemen, an actress and resigned herself to prostitution when it paid more than being a thespian. Her first marriage, as a child-bride (she was fifteen when he was twenty-eight) to Dr. Canning Woodhull, proves ridiculous; he's a drug-addicted alcoholic who spends as much time as he can frequenting the local brothels while she's left to be the breadwinner, and after their divorce, her marriage to the emotionally-crippled Captain James Blood is little more than a silly joke. It is only after Vicky's own affair with Beecher that things begins to thicken; a self-appointed crusader for morality named Anthony Comstock brings her up on a trumped-up charge which is subsequently dismissed by the work of a brilliant defense attorney. Along the way, we also meet such characters as suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Vicky's other sister, a drunk by the name of Utica. It's a heady, heady story laden with drama. And it's a bit off-putting that while the first act lasts forty-five minutes, the second act goes on for two hours. However, it's never not worth watching, no matter how trapped the audience may feel in their seats and even if a second intermission before the courtroom sequences might not have been unwelcome.
As far as casting, what works absolutely reaches the sky, and what doesn't work emerges as absolutely dismal. David "Zen" Mansley is at the toppermost of his game here, while brilliantly alternating five extremely difficult roles, namely Colonel Blood, Commodore Vanderbilt, President Grant, the preacher and the judge. Robert Homeyer is equally stupendous in his sensitive-yet-vehement portrayal of Theo Tilton. Richard A. O'Brien is delectable as Henry Ward Beecher, as is Tim Douglas as Buck Claflin, and the splendid Robert Colpitts as both Anthony Comstock and the younger Vanderbilt. Lily DePaula couldn't be more perfect as either the young Vicky or drunken sister Utica. Nora Munde Gustason is simply riveting as sister Tennessee and in an earlier role as Dolly, a customer of Vicky as a clairvoyant child. Luke Robishaw does a very fine job in a regrettably-small role as a jury foreman, and Gillian Brooke Todd is adequate as Vicki's mother Roxy, raped in a church by Buck, which leads to the child's conception, and later as a series of maids who dance their way across the stage. The true weakest links are Paulina Brahm as Elizabeth 'Libbie' Tilton, who never once comes across as believable as the sort of temptress who could lure Beecher to bed, and George Isaacs as the Prosecutor, who not only emotes his accented lines as a poor man's Yul Brynner, but poses so fervently as to give the impression that he's available at fine stores everywhere. (He does, however, fare slightly better in a brief scene as a prison guard). Then, of course, there's Kate Tenetko in the title role; don't get this reporter wrong, she does a very fine job of acting the part. But...it is nearly impossible to believe, even though she's a fine-looking woman and a wonderful actress, that she truly IS Victoria Woodhull. We expect a Julie Newmar in the part and we're left instead with a lesser Bette Davis. If there is truly a star born from the proceedings, it's Jacob Merrik Storms as the defense attorney, who infuses the exceedingly-long second act with a much-needed energy and phenomenal delivery and commitment.
Two other stars emerge from all of this, namely Roy Chang's film sequences and Chris Wade's musical sequences which accompany them perfectly. Also of note, are Lytza R. Colon's costume and prop design, William Giraldo's lishting design and Jiggers Turner's fight choreography.
Is Satan's Whore: Victoria Woodhull worth catching? Yes. But bring a sandwich of your own devising; it's a LONG show, and one needs a bite of something more than succulent drama while sitting there.