‘Señorita y Madame: The secret War of Elizabeth Arden & Helena Rubinstein’
Through Feb. 28
3333 14th St., NW
When you think epic female feuds, typically Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, or Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots come to mind. Now you can add beauty biz pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden to the ranks.
In his play “Señorita y Madame: the secret War of Elizabeth Arden & Helena Rubinstein,” now making its U.S. premiere at Gala Hispanic Theatre, Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott proffers a detailed recount of the intense rivalry. Contemporaries born in the latter 19th century, Arden and Rubinstein essentially introduced makeup and beauty creams to the world. With new stylishly packaged products and never-before-seen marketing techniques, they revolutionized an industry. Driven by rivalry and fierce oneupmanship, both women garnered power and riches beyond their wildest ambitions.
Details of the fabled feud unfold in retrospect with Rubinstein (Ana Verónica Muñoz) and Arden (Luz Nicolás), both at the apex of their success and power, telling their stories to a poised reporter (Cecilia De Feo) and her cameraman (Manuex) whose footage is projected as outsized images on the set. As they recollect, each initially refuses to utter her counterpart’s name. But eventually it becomes impossible not to discuss their own successes without describing the influence of their respective archrivals.
As the dueling dames, Muñoz and Nicolás are a complementary team: Munoz’s Rubinstein is a steely, businesses woman who’ll stop at nothing to succeed. In her cream-colored Chanel suit, she expresses disdain with the raising of an eyebrow. Like her salon’s trademark red doors, Nicolás’ Arden is bold and passionate. She flails and screeches. Her fiery, plunging dress and a glamorous loose pageboy are antithetical to her rival’s studied reserve.
Both had salons worldwide, but it was in New York City where the pair’s rivalry intensified. And though it seems their paths would have certainly crossed, the women astonishingly never met in real life. But playwright Ott imagines a strained meeting in which they amusingly size each other up.
Performed in Spanish with English surtitles, “Señorita y Madame” places two heavyweight personalities in a light comedy. Still, there are darker moments — despite her money and power, Rubinstein loses two sisters in the holocaust and Arden is forced to defend herself against accusations of anti-Semitism.
Director Consuelo Trum’s staging is lively and varied, making a few expository dry spells easier to get through. The broader comedy moments could benefit from reining in. Christopher Annas-Lee’s serviceable set with its obligatory red door and vintage advertisements is fine, but it doesn’t reflect the luxe of the ladies’ establishments and products. Claudia Aponte’s composition and sound moves the story through the decades.
Lorena Sabogal and Thais Menéndez admirably assay a multitude of women — mothers, sisters, assistants, clients and celebrities. Out actor Carlos Castillo plays all the men’s parts. With great nuance he goes from lawyers to lovers to husbands to Nazis, and most notably the ladies’ eventual big competition Charles Revlon.
These vowed enemies left similar legacies as trailblazing entrepreneurs.