LIFE & LEISURE
THEATER REVIEW - ‘Misalliance’ revival a pleasure
By IRIS FANGER
For The Patriot Ledger
With our summer barely started, an outdoor delight has burst upon the stage to entertain us, in the revival of George Bernard Shaw’s 1909 comedy ‘‘Misalliance’’ at The Publick Theatre. Unlike many of Shaw’s plays, in which the message competes with the wit for attention, ‘‘Misalliance,’’ with its themes of the vagaries of love and the restlessness of lovers, is nothing less than a pleasure to watch, especially as staged by Diego Arciniegas.
Shaw was at his most whimsical in writing ‘‘Misalliance,’’ but did not neglect the issues that engaged him. Thus, Hypatia Tarleton, the princess-daughter of the middle-class merchant John Tarleton, who made his millions in underwear, is another of Shaw’s strong-minded women, eager to break out of her respectable but comfortable cage, and lead an independent life. Hypatia is engaged to the wimpy Bentley, called ‘‘Bunny,’’ barely-breathing evidence of the decline of the aristocratic gene pool. She’s not in love with him, but sees no better choices until Joey Percival, a man worthy of chasing, drops from the skies, literally, by crashing his plane into the glass roof of the family’s conservatory. If the notion of a genteel plane crash - no one is injured - was a genuine stage surprise in 1909, it becomes a hoot in the theatrics of the current production, thanks to the imaginative sound design by John Doerschuk.
Hypatia might be a suffragette in the making, but Lina Szczepanowska, Percival’s passenger in the plane, and a circus acrobat who deems every day wasted that does not contain a risk to be taken, is an out-and-out emancipated woman. Lina soon has every man in love with her but scorns them all because they want to enslave her in one way or the other. She earns her own bread, subject to no man’s whim-.
Mixed into this dizzy round-robin of romances is a basketful of conflicts between parents and children, another of Shaw’s concerns, with Tarleton trying to control Hypatia and her brother Johnny, the would-be philosopher who has been roped into the underwear business; and Lord Summerhays’ exasperation with his son Bentley. To top off the underlying serious business is the odd-ball character Gunner, a lower-class chap who bursts on the scene with a gun. I leave the complications of that bit of plotting to those of you who will take my advice to see the show. Suffice to say that Shaw’s belief in the equality of the classes fuels this part of the play.
Director Arciniegas, also one of the most accomplished of the Boston-based actors, treats the play as a farce rather than dwelling on society’s myopic shortcomings. The action is enhanced by a mostly excellent cast, led by veteran actors M. Lynda Robinson as the slightly ditzy but eminently practical Mrs. Tarleton, and Steven Barkhimer as the randy but distinguished Lord Summerhays. Heather Wood makes Hypatia into a sprightly young lady, mercurial, energetic and most engaging; Debera Ann Lund as Lina is a hoot, and gorgeous to look at, from the top of her bobbed hair-do, stylish and daring in 1909, to the tips of her purple high-heeled boots. Owen Doyle is commendable as the excitable Tarleton. Gabriel Kuttner as Gunner, who questions the bourgeois morality he observes from his hiding place, is a comic with concerns of his own.
Not the least of the attractions is the leafy grove setting of The Publick Theatre, with plenty of free parking nearby, recently refurbished by volunteers from the Charles River Conservancy. Janie Howland designed the masterful stage setting, complete with open arches that frame the sylvan views.
At the end, however, it’s the meaty conversation, filled with quotable quips on the landmines of modern life, that holds one’s attention, despite the considerable cuts to Shaw’s script. Hypatia might complain, ‘‘I’m so sick of words,’’ but in this 21st century of visual overloads, Shaw’s literate dialogue, spoken by characters with purpose, no matter how frivolous, prove again that the play’s the thing.
Through Sept. 9. $32, $27 students/seniors. 617-782-5425, publicktheatre.com.
At the Publick, a witty poke at hypocrisy
By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff | July 13, 2007
· "Talk, talk, talk!" exclaims the exasperated young Hypatia, who's the fiercest combatant on one side of the parent-child war in George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance." And talk everyone does -- cleverly, amusingly, extensively, exhaustively -- throughout the Publick Theatre production's slender two hours. The play is a natural for the company, which continues this year to move beyond Shakespeare and explore the other possibilities of its slogan, "demonstrating the power
Shaw knew that power, for sure; he also knew that the spoken word could knock you out, sometimes undermining his own efforts to illuminate audiences by punching out their lights with a relentless volley of speech. So one of the delights of this play is its many slyly self-deprecating references to its own garrulity, which become even funnier when, as with Hypatia, they arrive in the form of verbose complaints about everyone's verbosity.
But what, you wonder, do they talk about? The usual Shavian smorgasbord: capitalism, imperialism, feminism, socialism, even Shaw's pet topic, vegetarianism. (Can a vegetarian keep a pet? Or, for that matter, serve a smorgasbord? Oh, dear, the giddy garrulity is infectious.)
Anyway. It's all here, and more besides, notably a plane crash in the greenhouse, a fistfight or two, and an unstable young intruder in the Turkish bath. Oh, and a Polish acrobat.
But at the heart of it all is Shaw's mischievous fascination with social hypocrisy, and particularly with the way parents preach morality to their children in blithe disregard of their own less than moral practices. Hypatia's father, John Tarleton of Tarleton's Underwear, presents a respectable bourgeois facade and wants his daughter to do the same. But he's had countless affairs, and he's also told his daughter to think for herself and speak her mind. It's only a matter of time before the clash between respectability and reason explodes with a bang, around the same time that airplane lands with a crash.
Though the Publick has wisely pruned some of the more overgrown speeches, there are still moments when the characters seem less like people than like megaphones for Shaw's ideas. But when the ideas are expressed as entertainingly as this, it's hard to mind too much. And Diego Arciniegas directs his strong cast with focus and drive; the longer the speech, the faster he races us through it, so we never quite have time to grow restless.
On Wednesday's opening night, the threatening clouds restrained themselves, but gusts of wind sometimes blasted annoyingly through the sound system's speakers. Even without that handicap, the stage seems to have some odd acoustical dead spots; in particular, Adam Soule, otherwise amusing as Hypatia's chuckleheaded brother, seemed to drift in and out of earshot as he walked around Janie Howland's airy, wicker-filled (though oddly Southwestern) set.
Heather Wood makes Hypatia a picture of frustrated energy, bursting to escape the strictures of young-ladyhood. As Bentley, her rabbity, quivering upper-class twit of a suitor, Stephen Libby is hilariously effete; even the comic accent affected by Alejandro Simoes as his friend Joey Percival doesn't conceal the likely outcome of any romantic rivalry between the two. And Gabriel Kuttner is drolly bitter as the interloper, whose role is better seen than described.
As for the older generation, Owen Doyle strikes a nice balance between vitality and absurdity as the senior Mr. Tarleton, and M. Lynda Robinson gives his wife an appropriate warmth, genuineness, and earthy good humor. Steven Barkhimer, meanwhile, delivers Lord Summerhays's epigrams with a full appreciation of their rhythm and wit.
That leaves only the acrobat, Lina Szczepanowska, adroitly played by Debera Ann Lund. She gets full support from an outrageous pair of purple boots, which are rivaled in Rachel Padula-Shufelt's costume design only by Bentley's ridiculous plus-fours.
"Were we very dull?" Lord Summerhays asks apologetically, when Hypatia pauses for breath in a rant against the endless talk of her elders.
"Not at all: you were very clever," she replies. "That's what's so hard to bear, because it makes it so difficult to avoid listening."
By the end of the night, for better and worse, you'll know exactly what she means.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at [email protected].