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Vol. LXIV, No. 29
 
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
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Music/Theater

ADVENTURE ANYONE?: Strong-willed Hypatia Tarleton (Veronica Siverd), surrounded by the accoutrements of life with her wealthy parents, is looking for romantic adventures in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance,” at Hamilton Murray Theater through August 1.

Love and Marriage, Plane Crashes, and Problematic Parenting; PST Stages Shaw’s “Misalliance,” a Witty, Wordy, Wild Frolic

Donald Gilpin

In the closing moments of Princeton Summer Theater’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance, business magnate and bibliophile John Tarleton approaches his family and their visitors as if to speak, then decides, “Well, I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His spirited 23-year-old daughter Hypatia “fervently” follows up with the curtain line: “Thank goodness!”

Misalliance (1910) contains its own most fundamental criticism. Shaw, able to lampoon himself and his own play along with his numerous other political, social, and personal targets, knew he was challenging the patience of his audience with Misalliance, which he subtitled, not “A Play,” but “A Debate in One Sitting.” At about three hours, with much more talk than action despite no fewer than eight marriage proposals, a gun-wielding, would-be assassin and a plane crash, Misalliance probably contains more words than the total of the last ten movies you’ve seen.

Yes, PST audiences at the end of the evening are likely to agree with Hypatia in her relief that “there’s no more to be said,” but Misalliance is a Shavian masterpiece, and this PST production, with its talented ensemble of nine directed by Shawn Fennell, renders with skill the delightfully idiosyncratic characterizations, sharp social commentary, and dazzling verbal gymnastics here. It’s funny, provocative, and entertaining, though 15-20 minutes, even a half hour, less dialogue and speech-making would surely not be missed.

One hundred years after its creation, Misalliance, beneath the formal Edwardian attire and manners of its characters, is thoroughly up to date: with its commentary on the perils of raising children — “On the subject of children we are very deeply confused,” he writes in his preface; on the disastrous state of the institution of marriage

— “If marriages were made by putting all the men’s names into one sack and all the women’s names into another and having them taken out by a blindfolded child like lottery numbers, there would be just as high a percentage of happy marriages as we have now,” asserts a particularly Shavian character; and on its questioning of the conventions of class, capitalism, and gender.

Princeton Summer Theater’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance” will run through August 1, at the Hamilton Murray Theater with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and also Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Call (609) 258-7062 for information.

The plot, taking place all on a single summer day, focuses on young Hypatia Tarleton (Veronica Siverd), who yearns for adventure amidst her privileged bourgeois life on her family’s country estate in Surrey. Father (Bradley Wilson) is an underwear tycoon, mother (Dominique Salerno),“Chickabiddy,” a vigorous social and maternal presence, and elder brother (Shawn Fennell) a bullying, more-brawn-than-brains successor to his father as underwear mogul. Hypatia’s spineless fiancé Bentley (Daniel Rattner), also known as Bunny, is visiting, along with his father, the eminent Lord Summerhays (Andy Linz). A plane crash at the end of the first of two acts shakes up the status quo in delivering the dynamic Joey Percival (Ben Taub) and his fearless co-pilot Lina (Rebecca Foresman), a Polish acrobat. A third intruder, Gunner (Tyler Weaks), sneaks in, gun in hand, and hides in the Turkish bath until he sees his opportunity to gain revenge on Mr. Tarleton for the long-ago mistreatment of Gunner’s mother.

As the evening wears on, the debates rage — over class, gender, economics, politics, parenting — and Shaw reveals the foolish pretensions of all these characters and the absurdity of the society and its conventions. This play is broadly comical on its surface, but the satirist’s pen never rests and the intent, is no less serious than a condemnation of the follies of England’s entire hierarchical, capitalist, imperialist, hidebound Edwardian society.

Ms. Siverd’s Hypatia is excellent as the attractive, rebellious protagonist, a vital, outspoken, and powerful force driving the action of the play as she takes the upper hand in discarding her weak, intellectual, aristocratic fiancé and winning over the more vibrant Percival. When Percival begins to fit in too much with the rest of the loquacious contingent, Hypatia challenges him: “Another talker! Men like conventions because men made them. I didn’t make them: I don’t like them. I won’t keep them. Now what will you do?”

Whether Hypatia in the end really escapes the strictures of her bourgeois society or rather settles into a mostly conventional marriage is questionable, but she is definitely upstaged by Ms. Foresman’s Lina, the strongest character and the only other young female character in the play. The Polish acrobat-trapeze artist-daredevil/physical fitness advocate seems to be Shaw’s purest representation of the New Woman and the Life Force — just the injection of vitality that England and, incidentally, this sometimes physically static play, need. “I am strong … I am skillful: I am brave: I am independent: I am unbought,” Lina asserts vigorously. It would be hard to imagine a better actress for the part. This Lina — from her crash landing in androgynous flight garb to her final exit, determined to make a man of the effete Bentley, is a font of energy — larger than life, funny, and relentlessly entertaining in expression, word and movement.

In portraying the parents in this play — Mr. and Mrs. Tarleton and Lord Summerhays — the PST contingent, made up of recent college graduates and undergraduates, has some challenging age stretches to contend with. Though they do not fully convey the gravity and complexity of these formidable, feisty, affluent late middle-aged figures, especially in contrast with their youthful offspring, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Salerno as the Tarletons and Mr. Linz as Summerhays are effective in rendering the idiosyncratic language, emotions, energy, and humor of these interesting figures.

Mr. Fennell, in addition to his directing responsibilities, successfully takes on the role of Johnny, brother to Hypatia and a comical antagonist to young Bentley and his aristocratic ambitions. As Bentley, Mr. Rattner is on target with the comic timing and effectively in character, “overbred,” according to Mr. Tarleton, “like one of those expensive little dogs,” as he pursues Hypatia’s hand in marriage. Mr. Taub presents a dashing figure as the crashed airplane pilot fiercely pursued by Hypatia. And Mr. Weaks’ Gunner, a mysterious criminal element, a socialist and the sole representative here of the lower classes, is intense, amusing, and sharply focused — in his characterization and on his mission to assassinate Tarleton.

Mr. Fennell has directed with a fine touch and a worthy effort to make this comical, idea-laden “debate” clear, comprehensible, and dramatically engaging. Raising the house lights, playing croquet in the aisles, and other efforts to break down the fourth wall between actors and audience raise the interest level of the proceedings. The entire, seasoned ensemble is well rehearsed and articulate, with hardly a word lost despite the British accents and the rapid-fire pace of much of the dialogue.

The unit set design by Allen Grimm and Heather May presents the terrace of the Tarleton estate — with three picturesque arches, multiple levels (which greatly assist in staging the action of the play), and a plethora of accoutrements of the affluent bourgeois life: wicker furniture, bird cage, urns, paintings, a trunk, small statues, vases, a huge Oriental fan, and a Turkish bath (which serves as a convenient hiding place). Ms. May’s costume designs, rich in color and detail, ably complement character and setting for these figures and their world.

Misalliance, the third of four PST mainstage productions this summer, needs, at least for contemporary audiences, some trimming of dialogue and long speeches. It’s an ambitious undertaking and a spirited testament to the intelligence and abilities of these young theater artists and to the brilliance of Shaw, his prolific wit and genius and his whirling, wonderful words.

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