Preview: Unibeauty and Her Wicked Daughters
A dark comedy about the corporate hijacking of the U.S. Constitution
Frances Cowhig’s new darkly comedic political fairytale and Jean Randich’s spirited direction provides an “experience of a lifetime” for students along with meaningful commentary on the state of American democracy.
At 7 pm on the last night of February, student actors from across campus gathered in the Lester Martin Theater. Stage Manager Mirka Porcayo ’26 hustled around with a laptop balanced on their bicep. They flagged people as they passed to take attendance.
Eleven actors and a handful of stage crew left their bags and coats on a wide set of carpeted risers. They chatted quietly and excitedly or fetched their script binders as Drama Faculty and Director Jean Randich cued everyone to take their seats in the circle of chairs at the center of the black box theater.
This was the first rehearsal of Unibeauty and Her Wicked Daughters by Playwright and Visiting Drama Faculty Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.
Cowhig often writes about what she calls “the most important story of our time: the impact of global capitalism on vulnerable populations and ecologies.” She has been noted for “turning headline news into a modern-day tragedy." Her latest work combines these impulses with classic fairytale characters and a healthy dose of dark humor.
“It’s a very smart, very funny political comedy,” said Randich.
Unibeauty, the main character, is a corporate person based on health and beauty conglomerate Johnson & Johnson. Using the literary forms of fable, allegory, and satire, the play explores Johnson & Johnson’s real-life efforts to dodge liability for their asbestos-laced heritage baby powder product and others.
Finbar La Belle ’24 is from San Francisco. They are studying literature and drama at Bennington and are playing the title role.
“I was really inspired and found that the format of a fairytale was such a perfect vehicle for talking about corporate personhood,” La Belle said. “I had never seen anyone approach anything so sinister with something as whimsical and commonplace.”
They noted references to cultural touchstones, like The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, throughout the play.
Corporations, lawyers, lobbyists, regulators, the media, and politicians are each recast as enchanted characters—think wizards, knights, and dragons—as they wield the Fourteenth Amendment, written to give formerly enslaved people equal protection under the law, to expand the civil rights of for-profit businesses.
The rehearsal began with a read through. The actors paused only for clarifications of pronunciation or intonation. It was only the second time Cowhig had heard the play in its entirety.
What sounds to an outsider like a fully finished script is still in the draft phase, Cowhig said. Together, the actors, director, and playwright will refine the script throughout the two-month workshop production. Actors will improvise scenes in ways that inspire rewriting.
“Now, it is sort of a mosaic or a collage. But it is not yet earned through dramatic action or character,” Cowhig explained during that first rehearsal. “That makes sense to me, because I am not starting with psychological characters. I am starting with legal fictions—a corporation and her shell companies—and trying to use the civil rights corporate lawyers and lobbyists have attained for them to transform these abstract financial concepts into dynamic stage characters.”
It is rare to have an opportunity to develop a play in this interactive way, said Randich.
“I love when Frances asks the actors, ‘Well, what do you think about this, and how are you feeling in this moment?’” she said. “I think it is really wonderful that Frances is open. I mean, come on! Bennington students are going to shape these characters. The characters are going to go out into the world.”
La Belle likes, “just being able to reach out and ask a question straight from the source and having an impact in rewrites and seeing the ways a director and a playwright collaborate.”
A week and a half later, March 10, the actors were moving on stage. By this time, Cowhig has already rewritten seventy pages and had plans to rewrite thirty more. The rehearsal had an experimental vibe.
Randich said things like, “We are just making something up. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t. This is just a sketch.” She also says, “I want to hear you!” and “Enjoy your power!”
When speaking of the cast, Randich said, “I love them. They have been great, right from the call backs. There is just such energy, such playfulness and risk taking. Anybody would like working with these people.” At that moment, laughter erupted from the group that had reassembled after a break. “They really like each other too,” she added.
La Belle confirms. “Every student is so open, wacky, fun, and fresh to everything that comes our way. No one holds back, which feels nice,” they said.
Randich also enjoys the depth and breadth of talent available at Bennington. Sue Rees is designing the projections and the set, which is constructed by Technical Director Seancolin Hankins and students who work in the scene shop. Senior Julie Winger ’24 is designing the costumes for the show.
“The costumes need to allow actors to change in a heartbeat from a Billboard, to a King, to a Wizard, to Global Corporation,” Randich said.
Bennington student Chris Fortier ’26 is building a large-scale dragon, and Lindsay Faust ’25 and Lily Ercoline ’26 are developing the interactive sound design.
“Bennington is a very good place to do multidisciplinary work,” Randich said.
Tusti Projukti ’25 is studying biology and film. She is cast in the play as the Head Wizard, a Hairless Witch, a Sorcerer, and a Magic Billboard. Some of her characters have opposite stakes, she notes.
“I just plan to do my best with getting myself grounded into each of my characters and to put myself into their shoes, whichever I am playing at the moment,” she said. “It is, for me, an experience of a lifetime.”
The subject matter—corporate greed and abhorrent irresponsibility—has challenged Cowhig to rethink the typical distribution model.
“I am working on a grassroots campus-based way to develop it,” Cowhig explained. This is a departure from the norm, which would start with the professional theaters. But professional theaters are often beholden to large companies for sponsorships. Through sponsorships of the arts, the corporations gain a perception that they are interested in the public good.
“In terms of corporate domination of public life, professional theaters have a debt to pay,” explained Cowhig. “They have been excellent ‘art washers’ of corporations for 100 years. Arthur Miller art washed DuPont back in the day. A lot of great playwrights art washed corporations.”
In fact, Cowhig continued, "Plays of mine staged in the UK at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have contributed to the artwashing of the oil giants Shell and BP, former sponsors of those theaters."
After Bennington's workshop production, the next developmental step of the play will be another workshop production at UC Santa Cruz in May, with undergraduate actors. An undergraduate directing class at University of California, Davis, will use the script for their final in-class project this spring. They will choose individual scenes to stage as their final in June. Cowhig will be a guest artist a couple times via zoom to help support the process.
Cowhig would like to make the play available to community theaters, middle and high schools, professional theaters, and other organizations interested in engaging the play’s ideas. She aims to begin civic engagement and community conversations about corporate power.
“We can look at England and see how the state supports the arts,” Cowhig explained. “There are many countries in Europe, Germany, for instance, where the state pays eighty percent of the ticket price, so theaters can take much bigger risks and don’t need corporate sponsorship.”
With the hint of a sparkle in her eye, she said, “That’s what theater is good at: imagining other possibilities.”
Porcayo, the stage manager, in their first year studying drama and visual arts, appreciates the message.
“It has more purpose and meaning behind it,” Porcayo said, “which I really enjoy, because that is something I want to do, to show off and put into my art, some sort of meaning behind it,” they said. “Now, being able to do that in the theater feels really good.”
They added how the play makes important messages more accessible.
“Sometimes people can’t take in news,” Porcayo said. “People are more easily able to process a comedic standpoint.”
Unibeauty and Her Wicked Daughters aims to reveal the web of manipulation between America’s centers of influence—government and the law, wealth and finance, business and the media—and the power afforded to those who know how to pull the strings.
It draws uncomfortable attention to the ordinary people who lose out and inspires those same people to examine the ways their own actions enable the continuation of the current system. Despite the challenging subject matter, the play’s darkly funny and strangely relatable characters will likely win the audience over and may even inspire change.
The workshop production will be presented at 8 pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 28-30 in Lester Martin Theater in Bennington College’s Visual and Performing Arts Center. For tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org.