Walk through any major department store’s main entrance and the first thing you’ll encounter are rows of cosmetics counters lined with cosmeticians spritzing and dabbing, trying to peddle their creams and lotions, lipsticks, shadows and blushers. The cosmetic industry is serious business: $170 billion annually worldwide and growing.
Few know that at its birth were two unlikely but highly successful women, who, as their success and power grew, looked at each other not merely as business rivals, but approached their rivalry like a war. Marketing and inventions became well-armed campaigns, ads were attacks, salvos in a decades-long competitive business world.
Helena Rubinstein, the oldest daughter in a traditional Polish Jewish family from Krakow, parlayed her mother’s special homemade skin potion into a million-dollar international corporation. For a time, she was the richest woman in the world. Her rival, Canadian Elizabeth Arden — nee Florence Nightingale Graham – was 10 years her junior and from Scottish-Canadian stock. A masseuse before she left home to make it big in New York, she built an empire starting with a storefront shop on Fifth Avenue.
GALA Hispanic Theatre has brought this true story of intrigue, competition and bootstrap determination to its stage at the Tivoli Theatre, part of the Spanish-language company’s 40th anniversary season. Senorita y Madame, by Venezuelan-born playwright Gustavo Ott, performed in Spanish with surtitles projected above the stage, takes viewers on a bumpy, fascinating, ride spanning the 20th century, as did the lives and industry that Rubinstein and Arden built through ingenuity, determination, cut-throat business tactics and relentless work schedules.
Christopher Annas-Lee’s simple set splits the stage with a desk and chair in each woman’s office — the famous red door punctuating Arden’s side, a Picasso and a Miro decorating Rubinstein’s, as she was an art collector. A slash of red and gold cuts through both settings, suggesting both the rift between the two women and the many rifts that shaped the 20th century.
The play unspools in a pseudo-interview format, with a journalist and camera man purportedly following and questioning their subjects as they recall key moments in their lives. And there were many, from the creation of skin and beauty care regimens, to the marketing of makeup for proper women — for in the early 20th century only actors or prostitutes wore color on their lips and cheeks. Rubinstein invented waterproof mascara, while Arden brought the beauty spa to the upper crust.
Rubinstein was born Chaya, taking up the moniker Helena as she began to build her business; she preferred to be called “madame,” and her staff and associates followed suit. That she left Poland for Australia without a husband pained her Orthodox Jewish parents, but Rubinstein soon discovered her calling.
Ana Veronica Munoz captures the toughness and irascibility of Rubinstein, who was shrewd in business and relentless in facing off against her competition. Yet, in playwright Ott’s script, there is also curious uncertainty — Rubinstein tells the reporter that it’s as if she is being viewed not just by the camera but by hundreds, suggesting that she can see or sense the theater audience. Breaking that fourth theatrical wall is a curious choice for the writer. Director Consuelo Trum chose a realistic route in staging the play, with few tricks, save for the camera projections on the back wall. Yet this suggestion of an exterior viewer — the audience — in on this interior/exterior point of view is not followed to fruition in the second act, leaving this viewer to wonder why that choice was necessary.
Among the most intriguing and visceral aspects of this rivalry milked to theatrical advantage is that Ott allows each woman to verbally abuse the other. You can almost hear Rubinstein using a collection of Yiddish curses to take down Arden. On the other hand, Arden’s hatred of her competitor gets more personal. There’s an ugly anti-Semitic streak to Arden. The epithets fly — “uncouth Canadian” to “Polish heifer” to far stronger anti-Jewish slurs. Luz Nicolas as Arden goes all out, nearly chewing scenery as the two women spar with words.
Both women experienced and were impacted by major 20th century events, from both world wars and the Great Depression to the women’s movement and the rise of labor unions. Rubinstein never publicly promoted herself as a Jew, and didn’t feel deeply connected to her Jewish roots until she lost a sister and other family members at Ravensbruck concentration camp during the Holocaust. Rubinstein was slow to react to the Nazi rise in Europe and late to move her operations off the continent. Arden, on the other hand, thrived in Europe during World War II. Elizabeth Arden was the cosmetic brand of choice for Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, and Arden was questioned by the U.S. government whether her offices were serving as a front for Nazi operations in European cities outside of Germany.
Senorita and Madame dramatizes a fascinating historical slice of 20th century business and social history that shaped ideas of beauty. Fluent Spanish speakers will take far greater pleasure in the 2 ½ hour evening; the placement and variable speed of the surtitles made the theatrical experience less than ideal for others.
Senorita Y Madame: The Secret War of Elizabeth Arden & Helena Rubinstein through Feb. 28, GALA Theatre, Washington. For ticket and other information, call 202-234-7174 or visit galatheatre.org.