By Sarah Downs
In her extraordinary musical play Suffs, Shaina Taub displays a sweeping virtuosity that is as satisfying as it is exciting. Satisfying in that a piece of history that has been largely glossed over is finally getting the attention it is due, and exciting because Taub has created a dazzling piece of theater through which to tell that story. Written with the precision and enthusiasm that characterized Alice Paul herself, Suffs weaves storyline, context and character together in a non-stop musical performance that packs a lot of exposition and excitement into two and a half hours.
Women have struggled against proscribed ‘home and hearth’ destiny since the beginning of time, only to be met by derision, punishment and even violence. As early feminists zeroed in on the fight for women’s suffrage (the right to vote) in the early 20th century they faced such outcomes. Nevertheless, they persisted. The deferential, ladylike approach, championed by suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt (a steely Jenn Colella), proceeded at a snail’s pace. Enter Alice Paul (Shaina Taub). It’s 1913 and she has a radical idea. Instead of hoping that smiles and cups of tea will win over the powers that be, let’s take the battle to the enemy.
As she organizes a march on Washington, Alice builds her following in an almost ad hoc manner. Her friend Lucy (Ally Bonino) stalwart and true, follows Alice from college. Bonino embodies Lucy’s courage, wry humor and gentleness. College student Doris (Nadia Dandashi) has hopped a train to DC to join the crusade. Wide-eyed and funny Doris faces life with an open smile.
Alice seeks out charismatic Inez Milholland (Phillipa Soo), a/k/a “the poster girl for radicalism” to speak at the march. Inez is a force all her own. Soo paints Inez in the sparkly whites and luxurious purple hues of her costumes. Inez in turn introduces Alice to fiery Polish union organizer Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz). Cruz gives a standout performance as Ruza, not just for her singular capacity for comedy and mellifluous voice, but also for her dramatic range.
Alice meets Ida B. Wells (an elegant, compelling Nikki P. James). A tireless activist for African American equality, she would like to have a contingent of black women join this first great march. Yet she is told to ‘wait her turn.’ Ida bristles at the hypocrisy. Grace McLean takes a delightful comedy turn as President Woodrow Wilson, who repeatedly puts the suffragists off, with promises that he’ll take up their cause next year (by which he means never). His aide-de-camp Dudley Milone (lovely Tsilala Brock) understands what Wilson refuses to see. As Dudley, Brock gives a charming, believable performance. She and adorable Doris are delightful together.
At the center, of course stands Alice. Shaina Taub lives her character, giving a performance of steely resolve and vulnerability.
On the simple terraced set surmounted by large, almost brutish columns, Director Leigh Silverman sets the action in near constant motion. The show opens with the excellent cast of women in top hats and tailcoats portraying a phalanx of sneering male opposition. Women criss-cross the stage stepping out into larger set pieces and fleeting cameos, in a flowing montage of exposition. There is one bump toward the end of Act I, however. Two excellent Act I closers compete for the same job. Both are terrific, foot-stomping numbers, but their juxtaposition is a little confusing.
Act II flows more effortlessly – gaining momentum to powerful conclusion. Stunning lighting effects and stagecraft tell their own story, including a dramatic Joan of Arc reference, menacingly foot-lit vaudeville dancers and (my favorite) a gorgeous film noir moment: Into the darkness of Alice’s jail cell, a door opens and a bar of light slices across the floor. The door to freedom is there, but there is a price to cross its threshold. Equality will demand its pound of flesh.
Don’t call them suffragettes. They are suffragists — heroes, renegades, freedom fighters– who suffered to earn women a seat at the table. We continue to face obstacles but face them we must. To tolerate the current resurgence of anti-female sentiment would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of their hard-won victory.
Suffs, written by and starring Shaina Taub. Music direction and music supervision by Andrea Grody, choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and direction by Leigh Silverman. With Jenna Bainbridge, Ally Bonino, Tsilala Brock, Jenn Colella, Hannah Cruz, Nadia Dandashi, Aisha de Haas, Stephanie Everett, Amina Faye, Holly Gould, Cassondra James, Nikki M. James, Jaygee Macapugay, Grace McLean, Susan Oliveras, Mia Pak, Liz Pearce, Monica Tulia Ramirez, J. Riley Jr., Phillipa Soo, Shaina Taub, Angela Travino, Ada Westfall and Aurelia Williams.
Presented by the Public Theater (425 Lafayette St.) through May 29th. For schedule and tickets go to: www.publictheater.org. Run time 2 hrs 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. Masks must be worn inside the building.