After Tuesday’s performance of Mad Madge at The Theatre Centre, producer (in associaton with VideoCabaret) Nightwood Theatre organized a panel of theatre-makers to discuss the trend of fictionalized history on stage (or, put another way, an examination of coincidental aesthetic consistency in the Rose Napoli extended universe). The texts up for discussion were Kat Sandler‘s Wildwoman (a 2023 Soulpepper hit and Critics’ Pick Award nominee) and Napoli’s Mad Madge (currently barrelling towards its too-soon closing on April 21), two irreverent and unapologetic imaginings of epic and messy humanity left largely out of history books.


I’ve used both the word “trend” and “coincidence” in that opening paragraph, though I think more accurately the plethora of anachronistic feminist theatre is the natural effect of empowered female playwrights given both the permission to make a mess and the money to make it pretty. Armed with the centuries-late concept that a woman doesn’t have to be likeable to be interesting, contemporary female playwrights are turning to the past where their male counterparts have been finding heroes for years, uncovering the hidden protagonists buried in the “personal life” tab of those men’s wikipedia pages. The trend, to return to a reductive but admittedly useful word, embraces modern language and light moral presentism to illuminate the selective storytelling of history. These pieces blend meticulous research with bravura imagination to paint full portraits of women as immediately real as today’s- unladylike flesh and blood wholly unsuitable for historical document but primed for a star turn on a 2024 stage.


Mad Madge in particular revels in unruliness, showing as much deference to the standards of historical adaptation as its heroine does to the behavioural expectations of her society. Napoli’s script is non-linear and inconsistent in its narrative device, as brazenly fictitious as it is fascinatingly true. Breaking Margaret Cavendish and her regal contemporaries out of their poised commemoration, Napoli shows them naked, ridiculous, and shitting. Director Andrea Donaldson stages the play in the round, protecting no one’s bad side. Designers Astrid Janson, Abby Esteireiro, and Merle Harley’s costumes are historical and beautiful but also cartoonish and extreme. “Intentional Mis-casting” (meaning the tossing out of standard qualifying traits like age, gender, race, and body type) and strategic character doubling adds both Brechtian distance and thoughtful insight into power and societal acceptability. The production and performances, in every way, are rewardingly aligned with the purpose-led mischief of the play’s enchantingly disobedient ethos.


Napoli makes no apologies for her character’s contradictions and inconsistencies, allowing for conflicting perspectives and changed minds when neither makes for clean storytelling. Margaret Cavendish is a proud single woman who loudly announces both her opposition to marriage and uncompromising dedication to self-focused ambition as a necessity for advancement in an age of non-existent opportunities for women. Mad Madge is also a pretty swoony love story and low-key parable about compromise. The clash of those two realities is evocatively unsatisfying, as if we’re being allowed access before history’s editors clean up the narrative.


Lucast Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, currently onstage in a characteristically competent production from Outside the March & Soulpepper, also plays fast and loose with the truth but offers a stark and disappointing contrast to the artful rebellion of Mad Madge.


Hnath’s performatively stylized dialogue and far-fetched autobiographical screenplay gimmick are irritating distractions from a play that reduces a very interesting, and very well documented, real person into a dull trope on well-trod territory. While the aforementioned feminist reimaginings use fiction to fill in under-reported history with humanizing complexity, Hnath ignores all the reportedly true messiness of Walt Disney’s life and character to speculate that he wasn’t a great dad, as if that’s an at all novel story about a man of his generation.


At least that dull elaboration leads to some memorable theatrical moments as the strong cast’s standout player Katherine Cullen makes a glorious meal out of her lousy nine minutes of stage time (she’s technically onstage a lot but, I counted, she’s only properly in the scene for nine minutes of the 95-minute runtime). Diego Matamoros is as compelling as ever in a standard powerful man role and it’s always a privilege to watch Anand Rajaram play obfuscated heartbreak, but this script isn’t halfway good enough for the talent attached to it.


So much is known about Walt Disney, and his impact on our modern world is incalculable. Without needing any of the imagination used in the retelling of Margaret Cavendish’s story, a play about the darkness and sadness and striving and ego that made Walt Disney an icon sounds like it could be brilliant. This is not that play. Cut the brand name and Hnath has written about any succesful American from the self-titled Greatest Generation, a strange shortcoming when the history books have already done half the work.