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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sex, Suicide, Deception

Theater Review

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Despite offering a critique of what he called the “claptrap morality” of Victorian society, Wilkie Collins’ novels never failed to weave a thoroughly good yarn.The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Collins 1866 novel Armadale remains true to this spirit. It navigates its way around the novel’s convoluted plot and boldly lifts up the starched petticoats of English upper-crust to reveal sexual intrigue, suicide, deception, murder, medical malpractice and opium addiction teeming beneath the veneer of propriety—in short all the things which Collins longed to further illuminate—and presents them in the form of a highly entertaining and rather saucy play.

The production benefits from an excellent cast and the effective use of a gloriously gothic stage. Some of the most entertaining performances come from ancillary characters; the lawyer and his detective son played by Steve Pickering and Gerard Neugent; the lonely and debauched accountant (Peter Silbert) and the quack doctor and his accomplice played by James and Rose Pickering. Each of them could have stepped out of a Dickens novel—an air of disrepute and wretchedness clings to them like a fog.

The central characters, though less entertaining, offer a more profound analysis of social and gender stereotypes.It’s no coincidence the only model of impeccable female chastity in the play exists in the romantic delusions of a tired reverend. Armadale’s fianc only becomes interesting to him when she stops “playing the coquette” and makes her sensuous desires clear. It’s this forward quality that draws him to the beautiful and deadly Lydia Gwilt. Deborah Staples’ performance as the femme fatale makes it difficult to believe that critics considered the character innately evil when the book was first published. Even when she professes the desire to “kill a cat or torture a child” her jocular tone and physical allure make her difficult to despise.

Morality and fate are called into question, most effectively through the character of Ozias Midwinter (Michael Gotch). Enduring an upbringing far less privileged than Armadale’s, he subscribes to neither the latter’s naive idealism nor Gwilt’s rampant opportunism, but strikes an intuitive path between. His motives are never crystal clear—especially when he woos Gwilt. Is he drawn to a soul as conflicted as his own or is he simply protecting his friend? There’s some hint of a love triangle, but like the graver subtext of the play it’s never forced.

Runs through May 25.

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