A new play at The M Ensemble, A Woman Called Truth, isn't your typical bioplay. It's a haunting, surrealistic exploration of the young-womanhood of Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist/proto-feminist born into slavery around 1797. The writing takes its liberties, sacrificing narrative arc for aesthetic vision, and never smothers its subject with sentiment. The whole thing is marred by a couple of subpar white actors in bit parts (par for the course at The M Ensemble, the nation's oldest black theater company, where really good white actors see no point in auditioning), but it's still got the criminally hot Curtis Allen, the utterly depraved Carolyn Johnson, and the golden-throated Christina Alexander in the big roles. Having stolen the show, they then sell it for everything it's worth. You'll feel inclined to buy.
Playhouse Creatures could have been a simple thing: a funny, minor show about the lives of the first actresses allowed to grace the male-dominated stages of England. As it happens, it's far more. Playhouse Creatures begins as a ribald sideshow and ends as a serious meditation on the objectification of women in the Age of Enlightenment, and as it moves from one to the other, the play strives to be everything — to evoke every emotion, to elicit every reaction, to express seemingly every idea that playwright April De Angelis ever had about women, life, and ambition. It succeeds. Like, say, Sgt. Pepper or the film Magnolia, Playhouse Creatures has the crazy patina of art created by people working over their heads; giddy, scared, questioning at every moment how much they can get away with. The scenes are fast and over-the-top, just like the outsize acting, which seems more suited to a big, booze-drenched 17th-century playhouse than it does the tiny space at Sixth Star Studios. Take Linda Bernhard's performance as an aging actress who is slowly eclipsed by younger, less talented, but bigger-bosomed rivals. She grieves like Maria Callas in Medea — a grief so large and loud it'd be ridiculous if it wasn't pitch-perfect. But Playhouse Creatures always is. As it dispatches with divergent subject matter such as love, money, art, sexism, the pyre, prostitution, and abortion (plus, in two terrifying scenes, dancing bears), Playhouse Creatures remains shocking, novel, balanced, and, in the end, moving. Check it out.