“The Women,” in its opening weekend at Harlequin Productions, is all about gossip, glitz and glamour.
Set in 1936 Manhattan, the Clare Boothe Luce comedy — which Harlequin promotes as wicked and juicy — follows the lives of socialites, would-be socialites and the women who serve them.
Director Erin Murray compares the show to “Sex and the City” — but without the men. But while there are no men on stage, the main characters’ lives are all about finding, getting and keeping men.
“It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test,” Murray told The Olympian. The test, originally applied to movies, asks whether a particular project features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
The play, best known through the 1939 film adaptation starring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer, finds women competing, cheating and showing their claws (painted, in one case, Jungle Red).
“The questionable moral: If you want to keep your man, you’ve got to fight the other woman tooth and nail polish,” David Richards wrote in a New York Times review of a 1994 production in Hartford, Connecticut.
“These women were only given these limited realms to oversee — the home and their closets and maybe some child rearing,” Murray said. “With the limited power they had, they wielded it to the best of their ability.”
Fashion plays a central role in the production, which follows the women to high-society events and department-store dressing rooms. And the cast of 16 plays multiple roles, necessitating more costume changes.
“It’s the biggest show I’ve ever done, for sure,” said designer Darren Mills, who created more than 70 costumes — plus lots of wigs — for the show. He’s been designing costumes for 22 years and has worked on more than 50 shows at Harlequin.
The costumes, many authentically period, draw a sharp contrast between the wealthy women and those of the working class, who dress simply and often have the best lines, he said.
They also illuminate the differences between characters, he said, describing a scene in which Mary (Jessica Weaver) encounters rival Crystal (Charlotte Darling) in a boutique.
“It’s one of my favorite costume moments in the play,” he said. “They’re in separate dressing rooms, and a very flashy gown is shown to Mary, and she kind of says, ‘No, no, no, that’s too much,’ but when it’s shown to Crystal, she loves it. … They ultimately confront each other with Crystal in the gown and Mary still in her underwear and slip.
“It says a lot about the characters — how vulnerable Mary is in that moment and how confident Crystal is.”
With its focus on fashion and romantic rivalry, “The Women” doesn’t exactly seem like something that would appeal to Murray, who describes herself as a “femme-forward theater maker.”
At first, it didn’t. She was turned off by the characters’ focus on men and by the way they treated one another, yet she was drawn in by the opportunity to direct a play with so many rich roles for women.
“I became more aware of my own judgments,” she said. “This is a story about internalized misogyny, and I myself was guilty of that when I approached this project.”
The more she worked on the show, she said, the more she appreciated Luce’s talent.
“This is an iconic play that often gets overlooked because of the fashion that’s associated with it, and I was committing that very same sin,” she said. “It’s a very well-written play. It’s incredibly funny. It has great female characters. …
“I’m really glad that my ego fell out of the way so I could say yes to this project.”
- What: Harlequin Productions presents the Clare Boothe Luce comedy about the relationships and rivalries among wealthy socialites in 1936 Manhattan.
- When: 8 p.m. Oct. 3-5, 9-12, 17-19 and 24-26, with matinees at 2 p.m. Oct. 6, 13 and 20
- Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
- Tickets: $20-$35; for the Oct. 9 performance, pay what you can.
- More information: harlequinproductions.org, 360-786-0151
Get a sense of just how juicy and wicked the script is by watching the trailer for the 1939 film based on the play: youtube.com/watch?v=I8WsqaN4izs
Hear director Erin Murray of Tacoma talk about the Harlequin production: youtu.be/w-DEhuNOu2Y