The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective
|Stacy Ross, Jan Zvaifler & Chelsea Bearce|
Women viewed by men as second-class while independent-minded, outspoken women are viewed with scorn and derision. Producers making unwanted moves on young actresses as police openly disregard women’s inputs. Businessmen more concerned about their bottom lines than they are of the safety and health of women.
Just more of the same that we read daily online or hear on conservative TV and talk-radio shows? Actually, these are descriptions of the realities facing the three women in Patricia Milton’s new play, The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective, a gripping murder mystery with much built-in humor that takes place in London, 1893. The fact that the despicably dismissive attitudes toward women of that long-ago era still exist today must certainly be a message the playwright and Central Works want us to see in this world premiere that is enticingly fun to watch while also a stark reminder that for every two steps forward, there is often at least one step back when it comes to equality movements – even after 125 years.
Only five years after the notorious, so-called Jack the Ripper began ravaging a poor neighborhood of London and murdering alleged prostitutes, in Patricia Milton’s thriller London is hit again with a series of five, brutal and bloody attacks on young women, four who have died – this time actresses from two particular theatres in the West End. Valeria Hunter runs a boarding house specifically for young, single actresses – women whom many men of the period consider in the same category as whores. Her sister, Loveday Fortescue – a former, well-regarded actress herself – has decided it is time to take matters into her own hands and to use her skills of disguise, her keen interest in unsolved murders, and her disgust of the ineptitude of Scotland Yard in order to find the killer herself before more innocents are killed. Loveday is not having any success convincing her sister (and her current source of livelihood) that her plan is not absolute folly (“Your powers of deductions may be over-rated,” said with dripping sarcasm). However, a recently arrived American actress, Katie Smalls, comes to the boarding house ready to employ her surprising martial arts skills and a brazen boldness to be Loveday’s detective partner.
As she portrays the insatiable curiosity, undeterred determination, and the no-patience-for-fools that define Loveday, Stacy Ross inherently brings to full bear her distinctively smoky voice, her countless ways of using her facial expressions silently to say volumes, and her sheer confidence in projecting any undertaken role. With a round-and-stemmed magnifying glass always close at hand and a stack of saved newspaper clippings and past notes-to-self ready for further examination, her Loveday is overlooking no possible clue as to who and why all the vicious attacks.
In between surmising possible motives and identities, Loveday rails at will about the current attitudes and treatment of women by the male-dominated society of London. She is clear that there are many men from all walks of life who might be the murderer and many more who do not care all that much if the real killer is found or not. “These murdered women are scapegoats,” she declares about a society of men where the thing “most terrifying of all [is] the independent woman.” (It should be noted that in 1893 London, one of the few avenues for women to be truly independent was to be on the stage – and thus the low opinion society held toward actresses.)
The more emphatic Loveday is that she must step in to find this street-stalking beast – even though she has never actually done any previous detective work – the more her sister Valeria dismisses the idea and does all she can both to poo-poo Loveday’s plans and to beg her not to antagonize the police, whom Valeria also dislikes and distrusts with a vengeance. Jan Zvaifler is the epitome of the prim-and-proper, older sister who prefers to knit quietly in the corner, worrying only about feeding her cat and taking as needed (which is quite often) her ‘medicine.’ That the otherwise posture-perfect, reticent Valeria becomes a ball of spent nerves – shaking and twisting her hands quite uncontrollably when she needs another vial of laudanum (i.e., tincture of opium) – is a matter she does not want to discuss with Loveday. However, Loveday is equally as persistent in her efforts to halt her sister’s drug dependence as she is to solve her crime mystery. The result is the two are often at snarling, bickering, raised-voice odds. Only with a reluctant bribe of a vial does the unemployed Loveday finally get the few quids she needs to sponsor her detecting efforts.
|Jan Zvaifler, Stacy Ross & Chelsea Bearce|
When the American Katie Small rushes into the boarding house’s parlor declaring “my life is in danger,” the Southern-drawling actress quickly moves from fright to fight as she volunteers to join Loveday as a detecting partner. Loveday is skeptical until Katie offers both her bicycle and her skills in fan-fighting, startling both Katie and all of us in the intimate setting of the Berkeley City Club with the loud crackling of her overly large fan as it opens with the flash of her wrist to expose its metal spines. Loveday becomes even more convinced as Katie proceeds to demonstrate – with Loveday as her target – how the knife-sharp fan, her feet, and her grabbing hands could annihilate any attacking male’s throat, jugular, or his two “diddle-dippers” (or “slappers” as Loveday calls men’s testicles). To all this, Loveday comments, “Oh dear me, Americans.”
Chelsea Bearce is fantastically funny while also fearlessly brazen as a Katie who agrees with Loveday that the only way to stop the murders is for they as women to take control. If that means she must go into the seediest part of London to buy a controversial, German book, Psychopathia Sexualis, with its full chapter on sex-oriented crimes, so be it. With sheer grit and gusto but also with a bit of cheerful sense of adventure, Katie even amazes the bold Loveday and eventually helps convince Valeria it is time for her to join this three-person collective of feminine ingenuity.
Alan Coyne has the evening’s task of portraying three different, despicable men who enter the parlor and who each eventually becomes the women’s prime suspect as the barbaric butcher of the night. His bent-over, sneering Toddy comes to deliver cat-meat to Valeria, wearing a blood-smeared, butcher’s apron and practically hissing at the non-amused Katie and Loveday. As the local Constable Crane, he is foul-tempered, none-too-smart, but always-superior-to-any-woman (in his own mind, that is), a bobby who pops in wanting to interview all Valeria’s female boarders and to deter any efforts of Loveday in meddling into police affairs.
But Alan Coyne’s crowning achievement of becoming another viperous visitor is as theatrical producer, Jasper Warren Winn. The cock-headed, whiny-voided Winn is a member of the local Vigilance Committee, a group of businessmen intent on finding a recent, foreign-looking immigrant to frame for the murders. (Again, sound familiar, 2019 Americans?) Winn is also the former employer of Loveday who was once thwarted in his attempts to assault her backstage and who then in revenge, ruined her reputation and her career among other West End producers. In each of the three men, Alan Coyne masterfully captures different aspects of the total disregard men of the time (and too many of this time in certain states like Alabama) had for women who showed any sense of free-thought and independent undertaking. And we are left to conclude, like the three women on stage, that any one of the three could in fact be the sought-after murderer, so disgusting is each.
The real beauty of Patricia Milton’s fresh-off-the-press script (she says in the program that she finished it during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings) is that this captivating mystery and commentary about men’s societal disregard for both women’s safety and sagacity is peppered with ongoing, laugh-out-loud humor. Gary Graves directs this award-worthy ensemble with an eye toward giving the audience a periodic, popping surprise of the unexpected as well as continual intrigue of the mystery and of the lives and histories of the three women we are fast getting to know. The costumes of Tammy Berlin are a mélange of Victorian styles, head-to-toe, with Debbie Shelley’s properties populating the set with items that one-by-one play important parts in the unfolding story. Gary Grave’s lighting design brings the gas-lit hue of a late-nineteenth-century parlor to life while the sound design of Gregory Scharpen provides not only appropriately mood-setting music but also implanted tidbits of music that heighten the melodramatic atmosphere of the mystery.
After being highly entertained and drawn both into the mystery itself and into the developing, sometimes rocky relationships among our three sleuths, none of us in the audience can be too surprised that this production of Central Works’ world premiere of Patricia Milton’s The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective has been extended in its run. The two hours (plus ten minute intermission) literally fly by with at least one of us (me) hoping that the playwright decides that – just like Holmes and Watson – Fortescue, Hunter, and Smalls might deserve more mysteries to solve in a sequel!
Rating: 4.5 E
The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective continues in extension through June 9, 2019 by Central Works at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at www.centralworks.org.
Photos by Jim Norrena