Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Convent of Pleasure
Theatre Pro Rata
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule (updated)

Kelsey Laurel Cramer, Boo Segersin, and Taj Ruler
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
Thanks are due to Theatre Pro Rata for giving birth to a new play—or, rather, a new rendition of a very old play—in the now-concluded 2021 Minnesota Fringe Festival: The Convent of Pleasure, freshly wrought by Heather Meyer from the same-titled play by Margaret Cavendish, a 16th century torchbearer of the English Enlightenment and proto-feminist. The 353-year-old bones of the play open fire on an age-old question: Exactly what benefit is granted to women by their allegiance to men? Meyer's frisky update makes the question germane to 21st century concerns and sensibilities, tempered by a slathering of barbed humor.

I confess that prior to seeing The Convent of Pleasure, I was unfamiliar with Cavendish. In the mid 1600s, this prolific English writer produced philosophical treatises, memoirs, poetry, scientific essays, fiction and plays, publishing under her own name at a time when most women writers remained anonymous or adopted a male pseudonym. Her utopian romance, The Blazing World, is considered among the first examples of science fiction, and championed "natural philosophy", a prelude to the English enlightenment's embrace of scientific inquiry.

Cavendish's output of twenty-one works included two collections of plays which, between them, contained twenty pieces. These were what was known as "pocket plays," meant to be read and not staged. The Convent of Pleasure was noteworthy for its portrayal of women who attempt to create a walled-in society without men, where women could be free to pursue their own interests and satisfy their own pleasures without submission to the demands of men.

The play was presented in an ideal setting, on the postage-stamp sized stage of the Wood Lake Nature Center's Amphitheater, closely embraced on three sides by several rows of benches usually occupied by nature enthusiasts. The backdrop of thick woods peppered by the sounds of birds, created a feeling in keeping with Cavendish's bent for "natural philosophy", in this case, the nature of that most bedeviling of species, human beings. Director Nicole Marie Wilder cast the play completely with women, with the three male characters coming across as buffoons, a good balance to the capricious nature of all but two of the female characters.

The play begins with Lord Sortof (an effete gentleman whose dress brought to mind a court jester), strumming a toy guitar for our amusement, until he is joined by Lord Somewhat, who shares news that the wealthy Lord Fortunate has died, leaving his entire treasure to his lovely and unmarried daughter, Lady Happy. That she is unmarried seems an oddity, for at the age of 30, she is well past expectations, yet has rejected at least ten suitors. Lord Somewhat resolves to woo and marry the heiress and her fabulous estate.

However, Lady Happy has different plans. She will use her inheritance to build a walled-in convent where women can live together free of any obligations to men, in particular the obligation to make themselves subservient to a man in the form of a wife. In spite of the term "convent," she does not mean for this to be a religious order, but rather a place where women can pursue pleasure without end, happily subsidized by her seemingly bottomless wealth. Her plan immediately appeals to three of her friends—Lady Amen, Lady Amorous and Lady Amuse. For all three, those pleasures include the very personal attentions of Lady Happy.

Princess Pleasure is the one woman who resists the invitation to join the convent. Lady Happy and Princess Principle have been known to have had an intimate liaison, and nothing would make the princess happier than to be living side by side with the object of her love, but as her name implies, she is beholden to her principles, namely that the convent is an escape from dealing with the realities of the world, and therefore irresponsible, albeit highly pleasurable.

The play carries on with Happy's attempts to persuade the princess to compromise her principles, hair-brained schemes by Lord Somewhat and another would-be suitor, Lord Soso, and fruitless admonitions to Lady Happy from the dour Madam Mediator to dial back her wanton. Madam Mediator was attendant to Lord Fortunate, and Happy appoints her to serve as Head of Household, Mistress of Money, and Abbess of Accounts. In that role, Madam Mediator is the only woman permitted to leave the convent, making arrangements to purchase whatever is needed to provide pleasure to the Lady's within, and serving as the eyes and ears between life inside and outside the convent.

The ending seems to be leading in an unexpected direction, then veers suddenly to an even more unexpected—if not entirely satisfying—resolution. This resolution differs greatly from the ending Margaret Cavendish devised for the play. Cavendish boldly set up a premise that was well beyond the pale for her day, no doubt setting many a tongue wagging, but was still beholden to a semblance of conventionality by the final curtain. Meyer is under no such pressure today, and uses the final scene to demonstrate new possibilities in this brave new world of ours.

Along with Cavendish's brazen conceit and Meyer's glib dialogue, the production was illuminated by a cast of nine sublimely game actors who delivered abundant silly business with complete conviction, while bringing sincerity to the rare—but significant—moments that convey the play's subversive message. Standouts include Boo Segersin as Lady Happy, persuasive in her total commitment to avoiding any obligation beyond her own pleasure; Kelsey Laurel Cramer, whose full-on determination as the thwarted suitor Lord Somewhat was constantly entertaining; and Nissa Norland Morgan as Lord Sortof, whose rendition of a classic fool made him the smartest of the three male characters while earning the biggest laughs. Meri Golden was wonderful as Madam Mediator. As the only person on stage who maintains her reason, we saw her struggle to remain loyal to the lady she serves while a slow boil of frustration and anger threaten to erupt.

The production's giddy spirit was also made manifest in Mandi Johnson's riotous costumes, mixing colors, fabrics and trims to create the look of a 16th century funhouse. Throughout, Wilder's direction drew forth broad parody and made sure we noticed the word play and sight gags, while tracking the play's themes and substance. A few conceits, such as a repeated gag about Lady Amuse's shrill flute playing, wore thin, but for the most part, it galloped along in a thoroughly enjoyable ninety minutes.

As a fringe production, The Convent of Pleasure played to a modest by ardent audience. Both the play and this production warrant a remount. Like the central character, Lady Happy, the show focuses on delivery of pleasure, and it delivers in the form of bright and merry storytelling and a provocative narrative sure to prompt after-play conversations. It also offers an introduction to an unheralded woman writer whose voice in the 16th century remains engrossing in the 21st.

Theatre Pro Rata's The Convent of Pleasure was presented as part of the 2021 Minnesota Fringe Festival. It was performed at Wood Lake Nature Center Amphitheater, 6710 Lake Shore Drive S., Richfield MN

Adapted by Heather Meyer from the 1668 play by Margaret Cavendish; Director: Nicole Marie Wilder; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Prop Design: Madeline Achen; Stage Manager: Clara Costello.

Cast: Ankita Ashrit (Lady Amorous), Kelsey Laurel Cramer (Lord Somewhat), Lynda Dahl (Lady Amuse), Kayla Dvorak (Lady Amen), Meri Golden (Madam Mediator), Megan Kim (Princess Principle), Nissa Norland Morgan (Lord Sortof), Taj Ruler (Lord Soso), Boo Segersin (Lady Happy).