'Mrs. Wrights' Ignores Frank Lloyd Wright's Architecture and Focuses on the Women Who Tolerated Him

Through Nov. 16 at the Charles Allis, Quasimondo’s “Mrs. Wrights” is a solo show about five consequential women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life

Photo courtesy of Sarah Larson
For the next three weekends, Quasimondo company member Jenni Reinke revives her one-woman-show about the lives of the Mrs. Wrights, the five women closest to the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. A Wisconsin native, the multi-disciplinary artist Reinke used memoirs and news reports to parse together the lesser-known histories of Wright’s mother, mistress and three wives, weaving the characters’ stories together through monologues, dance and physical theater.

It’s a non-linear narrative focused mainly on Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. She was Wright’s third wife and widow, and the visionary behind the comprehensive fine arts education student architects received at the school at Taliesin in Spring Green, WI. But it is clear, from the start, that dance is Reinke’s primary medium, and the choreography she develops for each character is what most strongly differentiates them. There’s the austere Olgivanna, a renaissance woman who also danced and composed music; Anna Lloyd Jones, Wright’s strong but meddling mother; and Wright’s sweet, naïve, and ultimately frazzled first wife Catherine “Kitty” Lee Tobin, who bears six children with Wright and refuses a divorce even as he runs off to Europe with Mamah Bouton Borthwick, his mistress. Borthwick and Wright return to Spring Green to live at Taliesin, where in 1914 she was murdered, and the house set on fire. A rebuilt Taliesin then became the home of Maude Miriam Noel, a sculptress, spiritualist, morphine addict and Wright’s second wife. Olgivanna ultimately runs the school and is Wright’s business partner for 30 years until his death, which is where Reinke begins and ends Mrs. Wrights.

It is dance that drives this story, with Reinke’s text and radio news clips filling in the more sordid details of each sub-plot. Reinke builds clear transitions between characters, changing her dress, adjusting her affect and accent, and shifting the movement quality of her dancing. But these changes aren’t clunky or unsettling—it’s neither hard to tell which woman she is, nor hokey, as can sometimes be the case when one performer adopts multiple personas. It’s almost like she finds a through line between these very different women, who were often at odds with each other — Anna thought Kitty wasn’t good enough for Frank, Kitty refused a divorce while Frank pursued Mamah, etc. Reinke even briefly portrays the man himself, as he mourns Mamah’s death, leading us to wonder if he might have, for a moment, come to terms with the consequences of his actions.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Larson

Reinke’s dancing isn’t virtuosic, per se, but it’s gloriously full-bodied, and the most gorgeous moments of Mrs. Wrights are her bits of dancing in, on and around a rocking chair. She’s styled her space with other period-specific details, and Brian Rott’s lighting illuminates the Charles Allis Museum’s honey-hued floors, casting Reinke’s shadows on the walls. Mrs. Wrights has previously toured to Wright properties, but this might be the opposite of a Frank Lloyd Wright home. The Tudor mansion, designed by Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler, is a prime example of the city’s aesthetic, but not reminiscent of Wright in the slightest.

Contrast isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rott’s lighting choices are simple and beautiful, but disorganized, changing willy-nilly, as if improvised in real time. This contradicts Reinke’s meticulous costume changes as she shifts between characters, or her deft organization of props, which include a hat, cane and trench coat often used as a stand-in for Frank. But by the end, the remnants of this show are strewn everywhere. It is, perhaps, a metaphor for Wright’s life: the clean lines and organized angularity of his buildings starkly contrast the man, whose personal life appears to have been chaotic, at best.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Larson

But it’s not an unusual plot, is it? The brilliant artist who puts his work above all else, leaving his loved ones continually neglected. Too often, we celebrate the man, while history ignores the women who tolerated him. That this was the case with Frank Lloyd Wright surprised me, though, and in watching Mrs. Wrights, it will be impossible to look at his buildings in the same way. That’s not to say my impression of his work is now tarnished — rather, it’s a more complete picture. In Mrs. Wrights’ final moments, Reinke, dressed as the widow Olgivanna, walks a diagonal line, from upstage to down, with a tree for hanging coats. On it are the dresses of the women she’s portrayed throughout the past hour—Kitty, Anna, Mamah, Miriam, and a white frock of Olgivanna’s younger self. She dips the coat tree and spirals it in her hands, letting each dress spill in a line, one-by-one, the casualties of a brilliant man laid out according to the timeline of his life. In ogling the genius, let us not forget the mess he made along the way.

Mrs. Wrights runs through Nov. 16 at the Charles Allis Art Museum. For tickets or more information, visit www.quasimondo.org.