It was a full house at the last showing of “Mad Madge and Her Blazing World” on Sunday, October 28 at the Experimental Media Performance Lab. The two-hour performance consisted of only eight actors who each played dozens of characters, from English royalty to French citizens to talking animals. Adapted and directed by Annie Loui and performed by Counterbalance Theater, “Mad Madge” is based on the novel “Margaret the First” by Danielle Dutton.
Both the novel and the play follow the true story of Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century Duchess who challenged the time period’s sexism and misogyny. She is often referred to as the first female science fiction writer. Loui’s “Mad Madge” portrays contemporary ideas in a historical setting by constantly questioning preconceived notions of both science and women, all while notoriously dressing in scandalous fashion despite public scrutiny. Margaret Cavendish’s notoriety was discussed in the tabloids, back when daily newspapers were starting to become more prominent in society, and the publicity led to her growing fame in England. Predictably, she was faced with a lot of criticism from people who still believed a mind was something that only men possessed, hence the nickname “Mad Madge.”
Before the play began, Annie Loui walked to the front of the stage, telling the audience that the cast and crew had only four weeks to arrange and rehearse everything. The lack of ano intermission challenged the actors to change costumes sidestage between every scene. It was impressive that the eight actors managed to pull off performing without any breaks, but it was even more impressive knowing that they had memorized every single role in the span of four weeks.
“Mad Madge” dramatized Cavendish’s life, and the actors performed amazingly to show the highs and lows of her career. It also contained moments of hilarious dialogue. The actors even had brief moments where they struggled to stay in character and ignore the laughing of the audience. The first half of the play depicted Cavendish’s journey to France after the King of England was overthrown, and her marriage with the Duke of Newcastle, William Cavendish, who encouraged her to write and speak her mind. Much of the latter half of the play takes place in one of Cavendish’s most famous works, “The Blazing World,” a utopian science fiction story about a woman who gains power over an entire kingdom of talking animals in another world. This story within the story touches on many liberal ideas, offering social and political commentary. The scenes from “The Blazing World” are imaginative and surreal with the actors portraying animals such as birds, dogs, and flies.
There was no architectural set pieces, only images or colors projected on the floor and the wall facing the audience, depending on the scene. Lights were used creatively to emphasize characters, and music that accompanied the scenes. The lack of set pieces allowed the play to be fast-paced, since sets didn’t require consistent changing. Any props that were used were quickly taken on and off stage as actors rushed to begin the next scene and transform into a different character. Since there were only eight actors, minor costume changes from the sidelines were a necessary part of the production.
A surprising part of the production was the use of choreography; certain scenes exchanged dialogue for dance to great emotional effect. One memorable choreographed scene was after William Cavendish married Margaret: the two slow danced to sweet music before lying gracefully on the floor, his hands caressing her arm with love and reverent affection. Their marriage was a significant part of her life, as he was a constant supporter of her and her work, and it showed in the way they moved with one another.
This production was delightful to watch and touched the hearts of everyone in the audience with how relevant her centuries-old story is today, when women are still fighting to be heard in patriarchal societies. Margaret Cavendish was one of many women who paved the path for feminism, showing that women are capable of being intelligent and speaking for themselves. She certainly was capable of showing that she had the power to think about the world in ways others were not. At the end of the play, she leaves with a powerful line: “I am as ambitious as ever any of my sex was, is, or can be: though I cannot be Henry the 5th or Charles the 2nd, I endeavor to be Margaret the 1st.”