MANSFIELD — Five stories of women’s passion, compromise and heartbreak come to life on stage through five women of great acting ability and vocal talent in MMAS’s latest production, “The Mistress Cycle.”
With book and lyrics by Beth Blatt and music by Jenny Giering, “The Mistress Cycle” revolves around Tess, a Manhattan photographer who meets a married man and is deciding how to handle their relationship.
As she weighs her options, we meet four historical mistresses: Anais Nin, essayist and diarist recognized as one of the forerunners in female erotica in the 20th century; Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henri II of France in the 16th century; Lulu White, a New Orleans bordello madame from the early 1900s; and Ching, a concubine in 12th century China.
Of the five women, White, de Poitiers and Nin are actual historical figures of some renown while Ching and Tess are fictional composites.
Directed by Michael McGarty, the play explores the role of the mistress in society through the centuries with a sumptuous backdrop by set designer Ted Talanian and equally sumptuous costumes of red and black by Katia Greene.
McGarty was fortunate to watch the “Mistress Cycle” progress, as Giering and Blatt started writing it in the late 1990s. He states in his director’s notes that their stories are made more relevant with the current #MeToo movement and even incorporates a reference to Stormy Daniels in the opening number.
However, the women in this play had a choice to become a mistress for whatever reason, be it love, independence or sexual freedom. As one of the songs states, “Not everyone is cut out to be wife or mother.”
The stories of each women unfold in song, most lamenting their initial choices.
Thirty-year-old Tess’s unsuccessful relationships are revealed in the song “Death by 1000 Cuts” as she cuts up photographs of her boyfriend cads.
Katelyn Miller sings her heart out and nicely portrays the frustrated single photographer. Later, in the song “Gallery Samba,” she appropriately shows both delight in being singled out by a new handsome suitor and angst as she learns he is married.
Ching laments her arranged marriage with a poignant performance of “An Offering.” The song is both a lament and a plea, and sung prayerfully by Aleksandra Donato.
As Nin, Ashley Harmon gives a sensual performance of “Incandescent Trapeze,” exploring her character’s sexual exploits. Kathleen Hardigan delivers a jazzy performance of “Divine” in her role of Madame.
However, Kristen Annese, as the older mistress of King Henri, stands out with her performance of “Your Eyes.” It is heartfelt as she sings to an invisible king, reflecting on the development of their relationship.
In Act II, the songs continue to give insight into the reasons these women chose the path they did and reflect on the perceptions that others have of them, particularly with the opening song “Are you Me,” performed by all five.
“Strange How She Slips Your Mind” has the characters of Diane, Anais and Tess reflecting on the wives of their lovers. However, “Half a Bowl,” performed eloquently by Annese with each of the other women taking a turn in the role of Queen Catherine, fully demonstrates the relationship between the “other woman” and wife.
The story of Diane de Poitier comes full circle with the death of King Henri in the song “I Had You.” Of all the stories, this one seems more fully developed in the script.
The other stories again give the talented women a chance to shine in song, with emotional performances by Harmon in “Papa,” reflecting on the incestuous relationship Anais had with her father, and by Hardigan with “Begin Again,” as her character faces disappointment.
The play closes as it began with the five women coming together in perfect harmony on the last songs “Mercy, Mercy,” led by Hardigan, and “All Your Life.” Much credit also goes to music director and pianist Nate Newton.
This is an interesting play that leaves one wanting to find out more about these women and the oft misunderstood role of the mistress.
There is definitely potential for the writers to further develop and define the characters.
However, if you are looking for a night of fine performances and musical entertainment, “Mistress Cycle” is worth a visit.