Though you have no doubt heard of economist/revolutionary Karl Marx, his gifted and loyal wife has been all but erased from history. Encyclopedic entries of her life are usually reduced to her lineage, marriage, and the early death of her children. You will learn something more of Johanna “Jenny” Von Westphalen Marx by watching Manifesting Mrs. Marx, but that is not its ultimate goal. Still evolving three years after it was performed at the famous Edinburgh Fringe, the piece is the brainchild of actress/musician/producer Clara Francesca who employs a wide range of techniques to shape the story. In less than an hour, she puddle jumps from Von Westphalen’s biography to the constrictions of the patriarchy to the struggles of creative process itself.
Jenny had her own distinct views of social revolution and the suppression of the working class. But she was also a writer of criticism which makes it particularly fitting to have her character critique parts of her own performance. The work is unconventional in that Ms. Francesca plays not only herself, Mrs. Marx, and characters in Marx’s world, but also against herself as the unseen writer who is heard over the theater’s speakers creating the script in real time. This allows the actress to simultaneously narrate and comment on the story. She is both the center of the work and being controlled by it, an apt metaphor for the constrictions faced by early feminists like Jenny Von Westphalen that continue into present day.
Laurence Olivier Award winning director Guy Masterson wisely keeps the focus on his talent, placing her in drab shapeless clothing against a dark backdrop. Ms. Francesca is given only a chair, a microphone and a “bag of tricks,” which suits an actress this playful, expressive, and bright. Her physical comedy is likely to make you think of another Marx — Harpo — especially in a segment where she brattishly defies her writer who is giving her too many instructions. She also uses her well-tuned voice to manipulate her audience, poking fun at “the pace of perfection” in measured dulcet tones and then rapidly firing off some of Jenny’s pent up frustrations.
Manifesting Mrs. Marx is a broad rather than deep experience. But while it’s hard to retain much of the detail, the impact of the performer’s energy and passion lingers. It is making its New York City debut as part of the The New York Theater Festival at the Teatro Latea at 107 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Three performances have been scheduled: Wednesday, May 18, at 4PM; Friday, May 20, at 6:30 PM; and Sunday, May 22, at 1PM. It will be paired with a second short play to create an 85 minute event. Tickets are $25 for advanced purchase general admission, $30 at the door, and $45 for VIP seating (https://innovationtickets.com/product/manifesting-mrs-marx/).