WILLIAMSTOWN — During the French Revolution, wax modeler Marie Grosholz managed to keep her head when all around her were losing theirs — quite literally. The young woman who became Madame Tussaud is the subject of the play "Waxworks" by award-winning Canadian playwright Trina Davies, which receives its first fully staged production by the Williams College Theatre Department Friday and Saturday at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance.
Directing the all-student cast alongside a professional and faculty creative team is visiting lecturer, Kristen van Ginhoven, artistic director of Berkshire-based WAM Theatre, which included "Waxworks" in its "Fresh Takes" play reading series in 2014.
In the final week of rehearsals, van Ginhoven and Davies — whose plays have been seen across North America and from Italy to India — perched on stools in the lofty glass-walled theater lobby.
Davies credits a second-rate wax museum created by a Tussaud descendent with inspiring "Waxworks." There, she saw a small tableau of Madame Tussaud sitting with a head and a sign saying "Madame Tussaud was forced to cast the guillotined heads of those people she had known from working at the Palace of Versailles."
"I sat in front of that for several minutes trying to absorb what that was," she recalled, "and I immediately started researching."
She pored over every book on the subject and worked with archivists at Tussaud's in London to create the play, which follows Tussaud in 1789 as she masters her art in the volatile and deadly maelstrom of the French Revolution, on her way to becoming the woman who created the first worldwide entertainment brand.
"It's a fascinating story," Davies said. "There was a salon of heroes and a cavern of criminals, and day to day it could change."
"There are a lot of moving parts, and it transports you to a perfectly different place," she added. "It's really exciting to see it come to life."
Tussaud was forced to step into her potential and use her art for survival, discovering her voice as a political artist, said van Ginhoven. She meets important figures of the times, only to see people she knew from Versailles fall during the Reign of Terror.
"It's set in an historical time period but has a contemporary resonance," van Ginhoven explained. "Robespierre's speeches compare incredibly to [those] we have heard in the last decade in North America and around the world around conflict and politics."
The play has been in development since the first draft won an award nine years ago. "It is completely my aesthetic," van Ginhoven said. "As a director, I was drawn to the magical realism and the multilayered approach.
"There's movement, music, light, shadow, moving set pieces, wax heads, dancing, costumes, wigs, it just goes on and on.
"We have this incredible sculptor Becky Kravitz who did wax castings of the actors."
Van Ginhoven hopes to stage the professional premiere at WAM in the next year or two.
A cast of nine plays four main characters and multiple roles including the revolutionary "mob." Williams senior, Paige Peterkin, 21, embraces the challenges the role of Marie brings.
"Marie is both of the world and not of the world," she observed, "a narrator and also a character in the story."
The theater and Spanish major has had to get used to acting in a heavy, elaborate costume, complete with period underpinnings.
"We started wearing corsets the first day of rehearsal, just to get used to how breathing and posture changes," she said.
Most of the girls wear two to three layers of skirts, an overcoat dress, bonnets and wigs. "It's a lot to carry around," she said.
Having the playwright in the room during rehearsal "is definitely scary.
"She slashed a couple of scenes in half and then put them together," Peterkin said. "We've been furiously working away the past couple of days trying to make that work."
Because "Waxworks" has never been staged, there's no rubric to follow, she observed. "There are a lot of designers in the room working in very minute detail, and that's been one of the coolest things to see, to have the lighting come together with the sound and the elaborate costuming.
"You'll get to see a lot of magic in the show."
What: "Waxworks" by Trina Davies. Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven
Who: Williams College Theatre Department
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown
How: in person at '62 Center box office, 1-5 p.m.; (413) 597-2425
Additional information: 62center.williams.edu