Review: Nightwood Theatre’s Mad Madge is a raunchy delight

Rough edges almost make sense in loud, vibrant production

What: Mad Madge
Where: The Theatre Center, Franco Boni Theatre, 1115 Queen St. W.
When: Now, until Sun., April 21
Highlight: Artfully chaotic set, costume and props.
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Napoli’s bodacious portrayal of an infamous Jill-of-all-Trades.

“WHAT WOULD YOU DO?” Margaret (Rose Napoli) asks the audience.

The show has just begun, and she stands a mere arm’s length away from you in the front row of this show in the round. Napoli is in a lavish red skirt, posed and poised, arms draped over her head, wearing nothing more on her top half than artful nipple covers.

Oh. You realize. This is definitely not a stuffy, boring historical drama.

Napoli was commissioned to write this piece by Nightwood Theatre in association with VideoCabaret, and now, she stars in it as the 17th-century philosopher, poet, and playwright Margaret Cavendish (or, “Mad Madge”). What Margaret wants more than anything in life is blinding, life-altering adoration from the masses … a simple request. After the death of Margaret’s father, her family is left with little funds and “no choice” but to marry her off. An off-beat mother (Izad Etemadi) and an iron-clad older brother (Farhang Ghajar) conspire together to get her ready for marriage.

Margaret, of course, refuses to be married off and, instead, sets off on a quest to become best friends with the queen. Napoli delivers a bodacious portrayal of Margaret, coming off her stellar performance in Wildwoman, in which she plays yet another controversial historical figure. Where Wildwoman’s Catherine de Medici must discover her power in society gradually throughout the story, Napoli’s Madge, off the jump, is exuberant, messy and poignant. She, once again, is a laugh-out-loud pleasure to watch on stage.

Brimming with contemporary references and audacious characters, Mad Madge is like if Bridgerton and Mean Girls had a beautiful baby. This reluctant romcom is a little all over the place, reflecting Cavendish’s own scatter-brained aims. The script could use some tightening at two hours plus intermission, with a bit more sculpting to provide a clear thematic arc for the audience.

The script isn’t the only thing that could benefit from some tightening as the piece sometimes aired on the under-rehearsed. I attended a matinee coming off two opening performances, and there were a surprising number of noticeable line flubs, an actor even calling line to the tech booth, with a production member feeding the line back to them. Strange in a professional production.

Napoli writes a script that’s unafraid, exploding with raunchy delight as she gets entwined in the queen’s world, complete with wicked stepsister-type adversaries and all. Margaret’s story takes an unexpected turn though, when she meets William (Karl Ang), a suitor of the queen. Madge does not want her story to be a romcom and yet … Ang, hot off his triumph in Monster at Factory, delivers a swoon-worthy performance to complement Napoli’s perfect chaos.

Set, costume and prop designer trio Abby Esteireiro, Astrid Janson and Merle Harley follow Margaret’s exuberant nature with vibrant and intentionally off-kilter design. The costumes mix and match colours and textures in a delightfully messy way that creates visual designs that reflect the characters. The queen’s wig, particularly, is fabulous — a mix of yarn and hair texture, topped with a tiny crown that’s perpetually off-centre. The set in the round consisted of a raised square platform, covered with a large blue and red checkerboard design, giving the whole show a very royal feel.

There is always the challenge of staging in the round though, and in my seat from the front row, I must admit I did spend an entire scene with no more to look at than an actor’s back. Overall, though, direction by Nightwood Theatre’s artistic director, Andrea Donaldson, rises to the challenge of Napoli’s script: it’s exuberant and injected with spunk. The transitions are especially filled with charm as the ensemble flutters in and out in an exaggerated ballet, moving set and dressing characters on stage with a flourish.

There was an incredibly fun practice of intentional miscasting in this production, with age and gender being no barrier to who of this spunky ensemble plays which characters. It works very well for this project that has a sharp eye on contemporary adaptation, feminism and the body as a whole. The script particularly pays attention to female bodies and menstrual cycles and how women can use their bodies both as a weapon to protect themselves and also how those same bodies can be used to incarcerate them in their positions in society.

Mad Madge is a terribly fun watch, a case in point being how the audience roared with laughter. Is it a little long with some bumps along the way? Yes. But honestly, it fits in this off-beat and unapologetic story about a woman who wants nothing more than to be in the spotlight. And as Madge wisely comments, “Who cares about critics anyways?”