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Stages

Channeling the Mancini sisters in ‘Possessions’

Carrie Ann Quinn (left) and Jane Bergeron lead the cast of their play “Possessions” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.

ANTHONY PHELPS

Carrie Ann Quinn (left) and Jane Bergeron lead the cast of their play “Possessions” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.

Marie spent years as a virtual prisoner in convents. Hortense apparently drank herself to death. Not exactly Thelma and Louise driving off the cliff. But the Mancini sisters were brave and independent women who made quite a mark in the 1600s.

So say Jane Bergeron and Carrie Ann Quinn, authors and stars of a new play about Marie and Hortense, “Possessions,” which begins performances Thursday at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.

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After years of research, improvisation, and writing, “We really felt we knew them,” Bergeron says.

The sisters were nieces of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin, the first minister of France, who was in charge of marrying them off. Marie was the first love of Louis XIV, and she made sure the pearls he gave her appeared in her portraits for the rest of her life. But Marie and Louis were kept from marrying, and she was eventually wedded to an Italian prince named Lorenzo. The younger Hortense, meanwhile, was married off to the nasty, demented, and wealthy Armand.

Both unions were unhappy, the husbands jealous and controlling. Armand was emotionally and perhaps physically abusive, took Hortense’s personal wealth, and gambled away what he didn’t give to the church. Lorenzo was involved in numerous intrigues that endangered Marie, and he came from a line of men known for poisoning disobedient wives, Quinn says. The sisters rebelled by being unfaithful, sometimes publicly; escaping their husbands; and traveling through Europe, on their own and together.

Bergeron and Quinn say the Mancinis were not just tabloid party girls like Lindsay Lohan or the Kardashians, but freedom fighters of a sort. Both sisters published memoirs.

“That gave us primary sources to work from,” says Bergeron. “It was just unheard of in those days for women to write about their own lives.”

“They were defending themselves and what they had done,” adds Quinn. “They were so talked about and gossiped about.”

Onstage, the playwrights lead a cast of five, with Quinn as Marie and Bergeron as Hortense. North Shore native Quinn, 41, is an assistant professor of performing arts and head of acting and directing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. London-born Bergeron, 61, is senior lecturer and head of theater studies at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Sydney campus.

They met and became friends more than a decade ago as acting fellows at Boston University. By then, Quinn had long been keeping a folder labeled “Notorious Women,” collecting the stories of those who’d been punished, in many cases, for not sticking to the roles society gave them: “Why were they burned at the stake?” she asks. “Why was Mata Hari considered a terrible spy when men had been spies for years?”

The Mancinis were in the folder, but it was a few years until they came to the fore. In 2010, Quinn and Bergeron were searching for a project to work on together when they read an interview with BU French professor Elizabeth Goldsmith, who would soon publish a book on the Mancinis, “The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin.” They had their subject.

Research and development of the play has involved talking on Skype and collaborating on Google Drive, as well as lots of travel. The Boston run is the piece’s US premiere, under the banner of the duo’s company Escape Artists, and it is already set for a run in Sydney next March.

“Are these women’s stories relevant to today?” Bergeron asks. “We’re living proof, because we’ve had very similar experiences.”

More than 40 years ago, as an unmarried, pregnant teenager in England, Bergeron says, she was hustled out of town and later gave the baby up for adoption. When Quinn was growing up, her family lived for a time in a controversial religious community in Western Massachusetts where, she says, a woman’s place was to get married and have children. Eager for a different kind of life, she says, she got herself admitted to prep school on her own.

Both playwrights had marriages end in divorce. Quinn spends part of each week in New York with her fiance, while Bergeron is married to a man who runs a family mediation agency in Sydney.

Quinn and Bergeron are especially proud that they’ve produced what they call a hybrid theater piece, partly devised from improvisation, complete with songs by Beyoncé and Paul Simon and an e-mail ding whenever one of the sisters gets a letter.

“We didn’t just want to do a historical docudrama that PBS could do, probably better and with a lot more money,” says Quinn.

“We really wanted to break the rules,” Bergeron says, “because we felt that was appropriate under the circumstances for our girls.”

Tennessee ladies

The theme for the eighth Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, Sept. 26-29, will be Williams and women. Highlights of the program include Keir Dullea and his wife, Mia Dillon, as Big Daddy and Big Mama in a Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and cult performers Mink Stole and Penny Arcade in a production of Williams’s late play, “The Mutilated.” There’s much more, including performances of works by Jane Bowles and Gertrude Stein. Details and tickets at www.tw
ptown.org
.

Making lemonade

Theater projects that don’t work out are often shunted aside quickly and never spoken of again. Whistler in the Dark Theatre is handling the situation differently. The company had planned to end its season with an ensemble-devised piece called “Vital,” drawn from the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell. But as the collaborators moved into final rehearsals in recent weeks, they were “less excited” about the work than they’d hoped to be. What they were still excited about was storytelling. So they’ve shelved the play and replaced it with “Vital: A Festival of Storytellers and Playwrights,”
a nine-day event cohosted by the Charlestown Working Theater.

The festival opens Tuesday with a potluck community dinner featuring curated storytelling presentations and an open mike. There will be readings of new works from Whistler’s Playwright Incubator Project by Tyler Monroe, Ron Pullins, Molly Haas-Hooven, and Meron Langsner. Also on tap are two performance training sessions (“come dressed to move”) and an end-of-season party. And it’s all free and open to the public. Details at www.whistlerinthedark.com.

A merger at Arsenal

The Arsenal Center for the Arts has agreed to merge with Watertown Children’s Theatre, which performs at the venue, July 1. While the Arsenal Center for the Arts has been in business since 2005, Watertown Children’s Theatre has been teaching young performers and putting them onstage since 1983. “The merger is a natural outcome of the longstanding partnership between our two institutions,” the theater’s founding artistic director, Dinah Lane, said in a statement.

The Arsenal Center will preserve the Watertown Children’s Theatre name, but the theater’s work will be fully integrated into the Arsenal Center’s educational programs. There was no crisis, just the clear sense that working together would better serve both organizations in the long term, said Arsenal marketing director Karen Vigurs-Stack. Administrative functions may be combined, but no layoffs are planned, she said.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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