Having seen War Paint on Broadway earlier this year, I definitely jumped at the opportunity to see John Misto’s Lip Service at the Ensemble Theatre this month. Both shows centre around the lives and times of make up moguls Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, and show their businesses rise and decline in the consistently changing cosmetic industry. Importantly, both shows also detail the rivalry between the two ladies, and ironically, it is the depiction of this relationship that separates the shows so distinctively.
A quick catch up for those unfamiliar with the brands – Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein both created incredibly successful make up brands and despite being each other’s arch nemesis, both were instrumental in creating a social change in the perception of make up. Even more impressively, these women were both leading companies and creating their own brands at a time where males dominated all industries – they were true feminists in their approach to equality in the work place, and more so, in their representation of female leadership.
In reality, the two women never met but that hasn’t stopped either of these shows exploring what could have been if they did.
Lip Service comedically hypothesizes this relationship through the telling predominately of Rubenstein’s life and the events that shook her life from post-WWII through to her final days. A quintessential European Jewish woman, Rubenstein’s notable quirks are brought to life through Misto’s writing and even more skillfully, through Amanda Muggleton’s hilarious portrayal of the Polish powerhouse.
Where Misto fails both Rubenstein’s legacy and Muggleton’s skill is through the constant barrage of punch lines as, whilst initially very funny, this structure certainly begins to lag, particularly at the beginning of Act II. The show too is lengthy and whilst the comic relief is appreciated at times, there is no questioning that it is overdone and drains the audience.
Opposite Muggleton, Linden Wilkinson plays Elizabeth Arden, a character with such potential for great depth that Misto has unfortunately left for the type of role we generally associate with the ‘funny best friend.’ Arden is explored only in her relationship to Rubenstein – a feature of the show that differs greatly from its musical counterpart, War Paint. Rounding out the cast, Tim Draxl is excellent as Rubenstein’s long-term and incredibly loyal Bodyguard/Personal Assistant.
The performances delivered by all three are some of the greatest I have seen on the Ensemble stage this year due to their masterful characterization and strong ability to really build a relationship with the audience, a crucial element when working in a theatre like the Ensemble.
Nicole Buffoni’s directions demonstrate her keen eye for utilizing the full potential of the Ensemble theatre space. In particular her scene changes were particularly interesting, offering the audience insight into context of these women’s lives through sound and video clips, art work, and small prop changes. Against a somewhat forced inclusion of homophobia and sexism, these contextual reminders are paramount to the audience’s full immersion into the times of Rubenstein.
Christopher Page’s lighting designs were instrumental in making so many locations out of the one small stage seem fluid as they transported the audience both in location and temporally with the advancement of the story, and for this he should be highly commended.
Though overall the play itself was quite weak, the performances by these wonderful actors ensured a good night’s entertainment! It’s certainly a show that I would recommend to theatre-enthusiasts, mainly to watch Muggleton, and a story that I would suggest anyone interested in brand creation or business leadership look further into as these women offer incredible case studies into the limitless possibilities of business.
All Photo Credits: Prudence Upton