Putting words into action, indeed

`Misalliance' given robust staging

TheaterReview

October 09, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Talk is action in the plays of George Bernard Shaw, and in Misalliance, the character of Hypatia is so fed up with "talk, talk, talk, talk," she yearns for "adventures to drop out of the sky," as her father puts it.

That's exactly what happens in this 1910 comedy, which Shaw subtitled, "A Debate in One Act," and which, divided into two acts, is receiving a ripping, lively production under Irene Lewis' direction at Center Stage.

Set at the country home of a successful, self-made underwear manufacturer, Misalliance allows Shaw to expound at length on the nature of marriage and relationships between parents and children, as well as his usual topics, such as socialism and feminism.

But as Lewis' production makes abundantly clear, the play is anything but a dry debate. Indeed, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and not merely because many of Shaw's aphorisms are also great one-liners: "I once asked your daughter to be my widow," an elderly aristocrat says of Hypatia; "It's not bad language ... it's only Socialism," the underwear magnate says of an intruder's rant against capitalism and the bourgeoisie.

No, one of the main reasons Center Stage's production is such a hoot is because of the vibrant performances Lewis has elicited from a cast whose members are mostly newcomers here. Chief among these is Stacy Ross, whose Hypatia is the exemplar of what Shaw called "The Life Force." Eager for something - anything - to happen, Ross' Hypatia is a coltish creature determined to shed the restraints of conventional, upper-middle-class life.

Ross plays her with a spirit so irrepressible, she's forever shedding her shoes and dashing about barefoot, sometimes proudly brandishing the shoes in both hands. Nor does her dainty print dress keep her from hurling herself onto the furniture with anything but ladylike decorum.

Small wonder this thoroughly engaging young woman is the object of just about every male character's affections - from her sniveling fiance, Bentley (played by Andrew Weems as a physical weakling with the mewling emotions of a precocious toddler), to Bentley's elderly aristocrat father, Lord Summerhays (George Morfogen in a performance so weary - even for a tired old man - that it's the show's sole weakness), to her fiance's friend, Joey (Eric Sheffer Stevens as a smart, handsome swain who is her unmistakable equal, although in this case, she has to chase him first).

Shaw's plays generally include a character who is essentially his alter ego, and in this case that character is Hypatia's father, the underwear king, John Tarleton. As portrayed by Peter Van Norden, this proud, extremely well-read businessman, who prides himself on being a man of ideas, is every inch his daughter's rightful forebear. He has implanted so many of his rather iconoclastic ideas in her head that he now has trouble dealing with the headstrong girl he has created.

But Hypatia's headstrong nature is nothing compared to that of Lina Szczepanowska, a daredevil Polish acrobat who, quite literally, drops out of the sky as a passenger in an airplane that comes crashing into the Tarleton's solarium. An outspoken, independent woman, Lina - memorably portrayed by Christine Baranski in Center Stage's 1977 production - is played by Natalija Nogulich with so much sheer spunk and brawn, there can be no doubt that her unencumbered life is the stuff of Hypatia's dreams.

Speaking of the airplane, its pre-intermission plummet through the set's glass roof is the master stroke in Tony Straiges' stunning set (the crash is usually relegated to an offstage effect). But the plane is by no means the set's only distinguishing feature. In keeping with Hypatia's exasperation with so much talk, the side walls are covered with quotations from the numerous authors her father relentlessly cites. Shaw's characters simply cannot escape the surfeit of words in this household.

If Hypatia is going to be at the mercy of words, however, she is at least determined to be, as she says, "an active verb." It's an attitude that not only affects all the other characters in Misalliance, at Center Stage it infuses the entire production with vitality.

Misalliance

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays; through Nov. 2

Tickets: $10-$55

Call: 410-332-0033

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