January 27, 2021

Lewis Center Presents an Online Production of “Unbecoming”; A Victorian Author Meets Her Medieval Subject in Princeton Alumna’s Play

“UNBECOMING”: The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater is presenting “Unbecoming.” Directed by Eliana Cohen-Orth, the video will be available online, to view for free, through January 31. Above: Lady Charlotte Guest (Paige Elizabeth Allen, center) is torn between Victorian societal expectations personified by the Wife of England (Eliana Cohen-Orth, left) and ambitions to complete a translation of the “Mabinogion,” which includes the tale of Blodeuwedd (Nora Aguiar, right). (Photo by Cathy Watkins, for the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Lewis Center for the Arts is presenting the first full production of Unbecoming, a new play by Princeton University alumna Emma Catherine Watkins. The play is inspired by the true story of Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895), the Victorian aristocrat who became the first person to translate the Mabinogion — a Medieval collection of Welsh stories that originated from oral traditions — into English.

Unbecoming, which employs a play-within-a-play format, has two protagonists: Guest, and Blodeuwedd, a central character in the last of the “Four Branches” of the Mabinogion. The legend of the “fairest, and most graceful” woman — whom the magician and warrior Lleu Llaw Gyffes conjures out of flowers to be his wife, but transforms into an owl as punishment for infidelity — is juxtaposed against a somewhat fictionalized depiction of Guest, whose husband tries to mold her to Victorian conceptions of an ideal wife.

Guest is given a strong portrayal by Paige Elizabeth Allen, who also is the production’s dramaturg. After Allen discovered Unbecoming through a development workshop hosted by Princeton University in January 2020, she and director (and cast member) Eliana Cohen-Orth proposed the project to the Program in Theater, as their senior theses. The production was developed in collaboration with Watkins.

The pandemic necessitated that the production, intended to be performed live, instead be filmed for online broadcast. (It also required particular versatility from all of the student artists. Production designers also perform, and actors portray multiple roles.) The artists lived together as a quarantine pod, in an off-campus house. The performance was filmed in their backyard.

The video makes clear that Unbecoming, with a character conjured from flowers, is well suited to open-air venues. After the opening credits we see an outdoor garden, which Set Designer Isabella Hilditch has furnished with a bed and a desk. The ensemble dances to Delaney McMahon’s ethereal piano music — using expressive movements (choreographed by Allen) that are both graceful and acrobatic — while carrying drapes to obscure one of the performers. Eventually the drapes are removed to reveal Blodeuwedd.

Charlotte is about to give birth, and it is through gasps of pain that she establishes a central theme with this rather defensive assertion: “It is entirely appropriate for me to translate the Mabinogion, this collection of ancient Welsh tales, into the English language … I’m quite sure there are others — scholars, Welshman — who could accomplish all of this with more ease and grace. But as of yet, none of them has.”

She gives birth to a boy. Citing orders from her doctor to rest, she asks a servant, Susanna (portrayed by Hannah Wang), to look after him. Charlotte now is alone with a vision of Blodeuwedd (Nora Aguiar), whose story she resumes translating. The literary translator and the mythological creation stare at each other, their hands touching in a moment of spiritual bonding.

This is interrupted by the appearance of Lady Charlotte’s Welsh husband, John (portrayed by lighting designer Naomi Park). After Charlotte hastily hides her papers in a clumsy attempt to convince John that she is not working, he presents her with a gift: The Wives of England.

Sarah Stickney Ellis’ book is personified by the prim and imperious Wife of England. The character is portrayed by Cohen-Orth, who blends prissy delivery of dialogue with dainty, disapproving body language, to give the production one of its most entertaining performances. The Wife of England, who intermittently recites passages from the book for which she is named, also gets one of Noelle Quanci’s best costumes, which is enhanced by a parasol.

Aided by Minjae Kim’s sound design, and Halle Mitchell’s musical direction, McMahon provides a rich musical score that distinguishes each character. The Wife of England is given delicate violin music, while Blodeuwedd is accompanied by a mysterious choral piece.

At a party in London, Charlotte has an uncomfortable conversation with two haughty aristocratic women, Lady Beatrice (Park) and Lady Mary (Eliyana Abraham), who make a show of fanning themselves, and disapproving of everything from a “vulgar” waltz to John’s ironworks business. (Their relationship to Charlotte is not entirely clear.) The encounter is interrupted by the appearance of Tegid (Wang), a struggling author and Welsh scholar who once tutored Charlotte. As they dance Tegid offers to proofread Charlotte’s Mabinogion translation.

Back home in Wales, Charlotte continues working. Blodeuwedd fixes her with an intent, slightly disapproving, gaze. Later, after the Victorian family has gone to bed, the Mabinogion characters continue to interact. Blodeuwedd ‘s lover, Gronw (Wang), pointedly removes the outer part of Blodeuwedd’s “velvet curtain” costume, remarking, “Lady Charlotte has never been one for nuance and subtlety.”

Charlotte and John’s oldest daughter, Maria (Abraham), enters and interrupts a work session. Breaking the wall between the play’s two worlds, Maria looks directly at Blodeuwedd and asks, “Who’s that?” Charlotte tells an eager Maria a somewhat bowdlerized version of the story. John walks in as Charlotte describes to Maria the segment in which Llew (Park) transforms Blodeuwedd into an owl.

John harshly voices doubt as to the appropriateness of Maria hearing the story, as well as the extent to which Charlotte’s understanding of the Welsh language, history, and folklore equips her to translate the story with authenticity.

During one of two online panel discussions about the play (currently available on the Lewis Center’s website), Angela V. John (co-author of a biography of Guest) asks why John is portrayed as being so unsupportive of Charlotte’s work. Allen reveals that as the script developed, John evolved from being just a “source of conflict and patriarchy” to a character who asks “‘Who has the right to tell this story?’” She explains, “John is — in this version — trying to defend his Welshness,”

Watkins adds that John personifies scholars who dismissed Guest’s work, and acknowledges that the real John Guest perhaps is not “portrayed in the most historically accurate way.” But it is an effective device that permits the playwright to dramatize both sides of an issue that recently has been at the forefront of performing arts criticism and practice.

In the play, Blodeuwedd contradicts John’s objections. In a beautiful exchange of dialogue, she reveals that although she initially has shared John’s doubts about Lady Charlotte, she is impressed by her determination and affinity: “You learned my language; I learned yours…. You are not like the men who have told my story before, Charlotte. That is why I want you to tell it.” Charlotte may not be Welsh, but as a woman she can bring an as yet unheard perspective.

Though Blodeuwedd adds, “You cannot tell it until you have listened.” She then tells Charlotte her own (darker and more violent) version of her story. This sequence is presented via shadow puppetry that is given some eerie lighting by Park.

Cohen-Orth casts the multiple roles in a (gender-bending) way that highlights juxtapositions inherent in the script. Park portrays John Guest and Llew, the controlling husbands; while Wang plays Gronw and Tegid, who offer the women an escape from that control.

The performances, and Cohen-Orth’s staging, deftly finesse rapid transitions from one world to another. Hopefully Unbecoming, a play that examines the responsibilities that past and present generations have to one another, will have a rewarding future when theatrical works again can be performed live.

The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater’s production of Unbecoming is available to view online, for free, through January 31, 2021. To learn more about the play, or view the production (and the online discussions featuring the creative team), visit arts.princeton.edu/video-performance-unbecoming.