For those who know Molly Pope’s delightfully old-school presence in cabaret venues, her background will come as no surprise. “I grew up drenched in the Great American Songbook and Turner Classic Movies,” says Pope. “The old timey-ness was bred in me since birth, so when I started singing as a teenager this big brassy mid-century sound came out. I went to NYU for drama, where I took Dan Safer’s class on solo performance. That class turned out to be super-important for how I wound up creating my own work and developing this neo-retro cabaret persona. I am inspired by Elaine Stritch, Bobby Short, Charles Busch, 30 Rock, The Bee Gees, Bill Claxton, The Judy Garland Show, Dostoyevsky, Carol Burnett and, most of all, Sarah Vaughan.”
Pope stars as legendary bad theater actress Adah Isaacs Menken in Horseplay: Or, The Fickle Mistress, A Protean Picturesque, which sounds just about irresistible as a theatrical venture given its cast and creative crew. Written by vaudeville historian Trav S.D. and directed by Elyse Singer, Horseplay (which plays at La MaMa ETC from February 12-March 1) also stars legendary Ridiculous Theatre alum Everett Quinton.
“Nick Hallett, singer-songwriter-lovely-human-being, recommended me to the Horseplay people when they were casting a workshop at Dixon Place for the Hot! Festival in 2012,” says Pope. “I had read and taken as a holy text Trav’s book No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and so I was super-excited to join the circus. For research on Adah Isaacs Menken, I re-read the most reliable of the Menken biographies, A Dangerous Woman by Michael and Barbara Foster, and I’m planning to read the more questionable accounts next. I’m reading her poetry and also the writings of the literary groups she ran with, which included writers like Whitman, Swinburne, Dickens.”
Menken made a name for herself in 1861 by wearing a flesh-colored tunic and getting strapped to a live horse that galloped up a paper mache mountain in the stage melodrama Mazeppa. Pope doesn’t know yet how they are going to do Menken’s notorious horse routine. “The workshop at Dixon Place involved a metal patio chaise longue on wheels,” says Pope. “I’ve been told the chaise will not be reprising its role at La MaMa. I have absolutely no idea what they’ve got planned and can only hope it’s an animatronic Shetland pony.”
Pope sees the tone of the production as fluid. “It’s everything and the kitchen sink. It’s going to be a wild process of developing the ‘performing’ of the play and finding its style in the room with this group of people. There are a lot of moments that could be played for high camp but could also be played for genuine pathos. I think in many ways the show is an extension of Adah’s life: Is it all true? Maybe, maybe not. But let’s not get caught up in pinning down the factual truth when there’s a good story to be told.”