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The Arts
09.12.07

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Photograph by Judy Bingham
CASTLE KEEPERS: William Randolph Hearst (left, Doug Baird) and Julia Morgan (Barbara Reynolds) draw up plans for San Simeon, while assistant Walter (Andrew Ceglio) awaits further instructions.

History Makers

Tabard celebrates seven female pioneers in 'More Than Petticoats'

By Marianne Messina


IF THERE IS a sense that Constitutional checks and balances are eroding or that the individual has diminishing recourse against the system, it's the perfect time to contemplate what impact one person can have on the course of history. In addition to celebrating "Remarkable California Women," Tabard Theatre's production of More Than Petticoats (scripted by Doug Brook and based on Erin H. Turner's book) soundly evidences the power of the individual.

In dovetailing fragments, the play unfolds and enfolds seven women's stories in a fascinating procession: Jessie Benton Frémont (Joanne Engelhardt), Tye Leung Schulze (Lily Tung Crystal), Mary Ellen Pleasant (Regina Morones), Julia Morgan (Barbara Reynolds), Toby Winema Riddle (Erika Yanin Pérez Hernández), Dorothea Lange (Leslie Hardy Tamel) and Mary Austin (Ruth E. Stein). For a play woven from seven oft-interrupted tales, More Than Petticoats is amazingly lucid. Projection screens solidify the details—dates, headlines, images, helped along by a newspaper crier (young Justin Isaacson) and other creative devices. For example, photographer Dorothea Lange helps set up an exhibition of her life's work and contextualizes her photo images, onscreen overhead, by chatting with the curator.

The show is carried in part by the women's unique personalities, each with a distinct credo that drives her achievements. A "bossy, authoritative woman" and former slave, Mary Ellen Pleasant (Morones) ran "the western terminus of the underground railroad" in San Francisco. In an interview at age 87, Pleasant responds to the reporter's question about the risks she took: "I'd rather be a corpse than a coward."

In this show of very few props, only two platforms and black curtains for scenery, costume designer Marilyn Watts brings out each woman's indelible identity in appealing, historical dress—Lange's flair, in tilted beret sporting a plume, and Julia Morgan's utilitarian prosperity in rich blue, full-length skirt and jacket with bow tie. Supporting these central women, in an interesting historic role reversal, the three male actors (Andrew Ceglio, Doug Baird and "newsy" Isaacson) become veritable workhorses as the women's assistants, associates, husbands and clients (behind every remarkable woman there's a good man). Architect Morgan's admiring assistant Steilberg (Andrew Ceglio) serves to elevate Morgan, supply background detail and add humor.

In addition to hearty acting, the play enthralls with an unending parade of fascinating factoids and little-known history. There's Jessie Frémont's intimate picture of her husband's bid for the presidency, the backroom politics of his rift with President Lincoln. There's the impact of California's ambiguous position on abolition, and there's the fact that Morgan introduced American architecture to the process of reinforced concrete. Still, Doug Brook and director Jenny Hollingworth have worked to maintain the focus on lives, not facts.

The advantage of historical perspective leads to a lot of humor. For example, chuckles broke out over the audience when W.R. Hearst (Doug Baird) first approaches Morgan about building some kind of small and "simple" bungalow near San Simeon. Morgan was 48 when she took on the project, which was to become Hearst Castle, and she worked on it for 19 years. From Modoc tribal translator (and negotiator) Toby Winema Riddle to nature writer Mary Austin, who believed good social policy needed the "distinctly feminine" perspective, More Than Petticoats brings to life the proverbial grains of sand in the machine. And they inspire, even as their stories show history skipping backward, forcing new generations to fight old battles.

Developed to have an afterlife in the schools, the play ends with two "flower children" in 1965 San Francisco puzzling over the lone commemorative plaque for Mary Ellen Pleasant that marks her nonexistent house amid the urban clutter. The scene drives home how pitifully we approach history and how easily we lose sight of its flesh and blood.


MORE THAN PETTICOATS, a Tabard Theatre production, plays Wednesday–Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 3 and 8pm through Sept. 15 at Triton Hall Pavilion, 1900 Don Ave., Santa Clara. Tickets are $10–$20. (408.679.2330)


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