By Jane Recker
It’s a tale as old as time: woman achieves great feat; woman is briefly lauded during her lifetime; woman is quickly forgotten about and omitted from the patriarchal annals of history.
One such woman was Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Not the first woman, the first person. Oh…and she was 62 at the time of her perilous stunt and is the oldest person to survive going over the falls?
Certainly such a woman deserves due credit for her contributions to society, and that credit has come in small part through an overdue obituary in the New York Times as part of their Overlooked series. But does the life of Annie Edson Taylor warrant a full-stage musical? Queen of the Mist is based on the daring feat and heartbreaking aftermath of Taylor’s trip over the falls, and it’s making its Chicago premiere through Firebrand Theatre. While it’s always great to see work featuring strong female protagonists, there just isn’t enough meat to Taylor’s story to give it the depth it needs to really succeed.
That’s not to say that Taylor wasn’t an interesting enough person to warrant a musical being written about her life. In addition to achieving the seemingly impossible at Niagara, she also traveled across the country taking on odd jobs, survived a house fire in Tennessee and, when held at gunpoint, refused to give stagecoach robbers the $800 hidden in her dress, saying, “Blow away. I would as soon be without my brains as without money.”
Clearly Taylor had the gumption and stuff to be the perfect lead for any musical. But unfortunately, the historians of the past century didn’t agree. There’s very little source material about Taylor’s life and inner workings. The only in-depth, comprehensive source this author could find about Taylor was her own short autobiography written after her plunge over the falls. The lack of access to detail shows in the musical, which oftentimes feels stuck somewhere between a sung biography and a hazy metaphor for the poor treatment of bold women.
In place of meat there are symbols, and lots of them. The anarchist Leon Czolgosz is used as warning of the perils that follow reckless pursuit of individuality and personal gain, Taylor’s sister, Jane, is representative of the inertia and mellow happiness of married life and a tiger from Taylor’s childhood is used to represent fear, then perhaps Taylor’s soul, then, well, it becomes a bit unclear what the tiger symbolizes at the end, as its last appearance in the show involves it biting at Jane’s breast in heaven.
Yet for all its gauzy symbolism, the show can also at times feel a bit didactic. In a number preceding her feat, “Cradle or Coffin,” Taylor sings about her uncertainty whether the barrel taking her over the falls will deliver her to her grave or to her rebirth as a rich and famous woman. It begins cleverly enough, but then continues to hammer home the same emotion instead of exploring any other of the array of flurried thoughts that must have been running through Taylor’s head before that journey.
It’s a shame the show is so scattered, as the overall production is stunning and features a stellar cast. Lauren Nichol’s set design turns the Den Theatre’s Bookspan Theatre into the inside of a barrel, and Cat Wilson’s multicolored lights and mist help to provide an expansive array of moods and settings to a fairly uncomplicated set. Perhaps one of the most impressive design achievements is Giselle Castro’s sound design at the end of the first act after Taylor goes over the falls. As the lights go dark and the soupy mist creeps out, the thundering of Horseshoe Falls shakes the theater in such a way that, for a moment, the audience is in Taylor’s shoes and feels the terror of approaching the drop.
The female-heavy ensemble has a great connection between the members and creates an electric energy in the room from the moment they step onstage. Liz Chidester has a nice supporting turn as a serious, chiding Carrie Nation, and Barbara E. Robertson carries the show on her back as Taylor, bringing a frenetic nature and empathetic approach to the role, despite the lack of assistance provided by the script.
Though the book is rough, it is heartening to see a show that not only presents the stories of women and is created by a heavily female cast and crew. Taylor achieved what no human had achieved before and few have accomplished since. It’s admirable that Firebrand Theatre is helping bring her story to life while supporting the stories of dozen non-male performers and creators.
Firebrand Theatre presents “Queen of the Mist” through July 6 at The Den Theatre’s Janet Bookspan Theatre 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.