“SIX The Musical” at the Emerson Colonial Theatre!  I first saw it at the American Repertory Theater in 2019, reviewed it then (read what I said here), and haven’t changed my mind about its problems, but this time I enjoyed it more. It’s won a pair of Tonys for original score (Toby Marlow with co-creator Lucy Moss) and costume design (Gabriella Slade) but that’s not it. Maybe this time I had a better seat? (makes a difference) Maybe its production values were pumped up? (YES) Maybe the performances were even bigger and more vibrant? (YES).

This is a kickass ensemble and takes no prisoners, though the women they play, Henry the VIII’s six wives, were certainly held hostage to the portly monarch’s hot pursuit of a male heir. One after another each of his “beloved” wives were either beheaded, divorced, died, or otherwise discarded by the randy royal. Most of this 80-minute musical takes the form of a reality show competition to see who suffered the most at the hands of Henry. The cast backed by an all-female onstage band is on fire, every choreographed vocal a distinctly different tour de force. My favorite was first wife Catherine of Aragon who hung in there with Hank for 24 years until he broke with the pope, started his own church, and annulled their marriage. A volcanic Khaila Wilcoxon in the part just about burned down the house with her righteous rage.

The audience cheers as each woman bitches and moans in an historical time-tripping catfight until the last FIVE minutes when they reframe their histories, reclaim their identities, and send us out feeling like women rule. Sorry– too little too late for this postfeminist feminist. The show conceptually hasn’t moved past its facile origins at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but has been gussied up and paraded as a glib entertainment which exploits some of the prejudices it purports to debunk. How about a second act which tells us more about who these women were apart from what HIStory tells us?  A thought: how about letting Anne Boleyn have the last laugh? She did give birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, who became, arguably, the greatest monarch in British history. Take that, Henry. Through DECEMBER 31!

Conversely, THE CHINESE LADY by Lloyd Suh, a revelatory two-hander at Central Square Theater, is deeply perceptive and uses theater to explore the implications not only of female oppression within all cultures, but also the systemic “othering” of any “race” (and I use the term loosely) that is not white. “The Chinese Lady” is based on the real life experiences of one Afong Moy (not her real name, played by Sophorl Ngin) who came to America from China in 1834 as a 14 year-old and was marketed and displayed as an exotic “oriental”  curiosity. She eventually became a P.T. Barnum sideshow, and decades later was discarded, her ultimate whereabouts lost to history.

Onstage “The Chinese Lady”communicates through a translator named Atung played by Jae Woo, and much of Moy’s sophisticated communication is stripped down to its least offensive, most obliging meaning for white audiences; their personhood is lost in translation, Asian stereotypes take shape, and decades of racist policies are set in motion. For many Americans, Afung Moy was the first Asian they had ever seen.

The show is simply and ingeniously directed by Sara Shin, and unfolds in layers of meaning over time. We see the Chinese Lady center stage, caged, brightly lit, through gauzy curtains which ceremonially part– marking years, decades, centuries, and evolving perceptions. Over the course of one 80-minute act, the play cleverly flips our gaze; by the final curtain the audience comes to see itself over 200 years of history and the lens of a presumptive white American culture through Moy’s piercing gaze.  See this through December 11!

And finally THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG at the Lyric Stage is more than all right! I usually hate farce, but here I was hysterical within the 1st minute!  This production features an ingenious two-tiered set engineered to trigger all manner of mishap– pratfalls to spit takes, faulty props to malapropisms, executed by a crack cast with crackerjack comic timing. Especially funny are Michael Liebhauser as the supercilious inspector and Marc Pierre as the clueless Max whose winsome physical schtick stopped the show more than once. Toss in ticklish corpses, unconscious leading ladies, multifarious miscues, and technical  gaffes all orchestrated by virtuoso director Fred Sullivan, Jr. who knows a thing or two about the precision required to make this kind of bedlam a thing of beauty– and you’ve got a winner.

Laugh yourself silly through 12/18!