The battle for women's rights, on all fronts, is compelling subject matter for documentaries, speeches and any number of Rachel Maddow shows. It also can be fertile ground for theater, but only when the politics are woven into a story and not a screed. This is the juncture where the world premiere of Ancestra, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, becomes a bit problematic. On the plus side, the production directed by Holly Holisinger (who is also one of the four co-authors) is well performed by the 10-person, all-female cast, most of whom handle multiple roles. The show is further enhanced by Aaron Benson's handsome scenic design, original music and a lobby installation that seems like a 19th century version of Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" (minus the vulva-inspired dishes). This all serves to neatly integrate a story that flashes back and forth in time from the mid-1800s to the present day.
There is a strong local connection to this play written by current Clevelanders Holsinger, Chris Seibert (who plays the central role of Cora), Renee Schilling and Sally Groth (playing multiple roles). The history of women's struggle for autonomy is represented by several women who participate in the National Women's Rights Convention held in Cleveland eight years before the Civil War. The play certainly touches a lot of bases as it finds contemporary parallels to the repressive world of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the story of Cora and her disappointing journey through the wilds of corporate media feels remarkably naïve. As for the women who fought for rights more than 150 years ago, they appear mostly as ghostly apparitions murmuring about this and that. There's plenty of righteous anger in Ancestra, and that's a damn fine thing. However, the play often sounds like a compendium of Wikipedia entries, spewing a litany of anti-woman issues and only occasionally tethering them to personal stories and felt consequences.
Through June 7 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.