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The Last Reading of Charlotte Cushman

"Romeo and Juliet, starring Miss Charlotte Cushman in the role of Romeo."

  It sounds odd at first, but Cushman was a great Victorian actress who specialized in roles known as "breeches" — male parts for those who lacked male parts.

  Recently at AllWays Lounge, Karen Shields held the audience spellbound in The Last Reading of Charlotte Cushman, a one-woman play by Carolyn Gage. Terminal breast cancer is the grim background of the drama, but Cushman's indomitable spirit upstages the Reaper.

  At the start of the show, the stage manager (Michael Martin) comes out of the wings to announce the performance is cancelled due to the star's ill-health. Then Cushman barges on stage wearing a black tuxedo and insists the show will go on.

  In the monologue, Cushman interweaves her life story and her stage career. She was an American who lived briefly in New Orleans and had success on both sides of the Atlantic. When she cast two women to star in Romeo and Juliet in London, it seemed she was walking into the lion's den, but her production was well received. In fact, critics said Cushman put their gender to shame.

  Much of her personal life, as she relates it, focused on what were then known as "romantic female friendships." Cushman had quite a few and they affected her deeply. Queen Victoria could not conceive of physical love between women, so that kind of relationship was left out of the law forbidding homosexuality. None dared to face the queen with the reality of lesbianism, and Cushman lived her life as she chose.

  Kudos to Karen Shields for her portrayal of this brave woman. Glenn Meche skillfully directed the character study (as he did in the memorable biographical drama about Gertrude Stein at the theater in 2008). — Dalt Wonk

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