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A CurtainUp Review

Nothing that's worth saying is proper. --- Eugene Marchbanks

Amanda Jones as Candida, David Tillistrand as Morell
Amanda Jones as Candida, David Tillistrand as Morell
(Photo: Rachel Macklin)
It's hard to imagine why someone who said that marriage "is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open" would be so fascinated with writing about the domestic union, but fascinated with it George Bernard Shaw was, and the crackling energy of much of his dramatic work comes from the tension between husband and wife. Nowhere is this tension more in evidence than in Shaw's 1895 play Candida, in which an (for the time) unusually independent-minded woman must decide between her husband, the well-meaning but somewhat uninspiring clergyman James Morell, and a new friend of the family, the young poet Eugene Marchbanks who does more to disrupt the domestic tranquility of the Morell household in one day than years of casual neglect of his wife by the Rev. Morell could manage.

Like all Shaw plays, Candida is somewhat "talky" and certainly highly intellectual, and in the wrong hands the combination is a recipe for dramatic boredom. It's a pleasure, then, to know from the minute Morell and his secretary Miss Prossy appear on stage at the opening of this new production that we are in the hands of people who understand how to translate Shaw's intellectual work into a performance with vibrancy and spirit. It is no secret that the Cocteau has recently been through a significant period of upheaval; if this is representative of what it hopes to produce from this point forward, it bodes well for the company's future.

Much of the credit for the performance's liveliness has to go to director Michael Halberstam, who was brought in from Chicago by the Cocteau to spearhead this production. He has both starred in and directed Shaw before, and his familiarity with the work shows. The actors move around a small but appealingly intimate set (expertly designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge) in a cleverly choreographed fashion designed to highlight center stage. Titian's painting "The Assumption of the Virgin" hangs above the fireplace in the center of the upstage wall; a reflection of Marchbanks's (and to some extent Morell's) idealized vision of Candida, the artwork is a metaphor for the three main characters' interrelationship and, on more than one occasion, Marchbanks and Morell face off with the painting silently presiding over their conflict. It's a nice directorial touch, and one which Halberstam's actors follow through on.

David Tillistrand's Morell is appropriately blustery and overconfident at the play's beginning and effectively pitiable at its end, though in between his broad strokes there is a bit of subtlety to the character which seems to be somewhat lost in the portrayal. Danaher Dempsey handles Marchbanks's difficult combination of hopeless romantic, weak boy and dramatic poet with skill. We're supposed to be annoyed or amused but not entirely contemptuous of the young man, and Dempsey navigates these dangerous waters expertly. Seth Duerr competently plays the rather nondescript curate Lexy, while Angus Hepburn is excellent as Mr. Burgess, Candida's father who is more interested in matters of practical advancement than the spiritual leanings of his son-in-law, giving him a degree of humanity and resisting the tendency to overplay him as some evil businessman out of Dickens. Kate Holland plays to the bewildered Puritan spirit of Miss Prossy appropriately, though one could sometimes wish for her not to act as if her character were meant to be the star of the show. That honor belongs to Candida, who whether on or off stage is always the heart of this production.

Amanda Jones is exceptional in the difficult title role. Candida must manage to seem young yet matronly, flirtatious without being lewd, witty without being flighty. . . and most of all independent-minded without being cruel to the two men who love her. Somehow Jones carries all of this off without seeming pretentious or artificial. Even when not speaking, she is the emotional motivator of the action. The flashing of her maroon dress, really the only splash of color evident on any of the characters in the play (kudos to Halberstam and the costume designer Sean Sullivan for this decision), is enough to draw the gaze of those off and on stage to her. The motivations for Candida's behavior are sometimes hard to fathom, particularly in the choice she makes between Morell and Marchbanks during the climactic scene. But Jones's ability to convey Candida's compassion and the sacrifice she ultimately makes is both moving and compelling.

As good as it is, this production is not without some flaws. Accents seem particularly problematic for Tillistrand, who never seems comfortable with a basic British inflection; also for Holland, whose version of Scottish dialect often seems perilously close to falling into Russian. Jones is so outstanding that the rest of the cast tends to look rather small in comparison. Still Halberstam does enough to balance out the strengths and weaknesses of the actors so that the relationships between and among their characters are believable. Difficult as Candida's decision is, Shaw and Halberstam show us that Candida's choice is made with a clear head but a not unregretful heart, and it is a measure of the caliber of both playwright and director that we are both happy and sad at her decision.

Editor's Note: This is the second Shaw play to be given worthy revivals off-Broadway this month. Mrs. Warren's Profession, at the Irish Rep also features a stellar performer, Dana Ivey, in the title role. For a review of that production go here. A non-traditional production of another Shaw classic, Major Barbara is scheduled for a brief run at La Mama in the East Village next month. We'll be reviewing this Kabuki influenced production as well and you'll find details about performance dates and times in our Off-Broadway Listings. For more about Shaw, with links to other plays we've reviewed, check out our G. B. Shaw Backgrounder.

Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Cast: Danaher Dempsey (Marchbanks), Seth Duerr (Lexy), Angus Hepburn (Burgess), Kate Holland (Miss Prossy), Amanda Jones (Candida), David Tillistrand (Morell)
Set Design: Brian Sidney Bembridge
Costume Design: Sean Sullivan
Lighting Design: Joel Moritz
Sound Design and Original Music: Josh Schmidt
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (includes two intermissions, one each after Act I and Act II)
Editor's Note: I went to see this production on December 30th, at which time it clocked in at approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with the intermission, so perhaps there has been some trimming -- which in no way harms the play.
Jean Cocteau Repertory Company, at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery St., (212) 677-0060
From 12/16/05 to 1/29/06 Extended to 2/11/06.; opening 12/22/05
Wed. @ 7 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. @8 p.m., Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.
Tickets: Wed.-Thurs. $40, Fri.-Sun. $50 regular admission; Wed.-Thurs. $30, Fri.-Sun. $40 Seniors; Wed.-Thurs. $20, Fri.-Sun. $30 Students; Wed.-Thurs. $29.50, Fri.-Sun. $32 Adult Groups; Wed.-Thurs. $17.50, Fri.-Sun. $20 College Groups; Wed.-Thurs. $15, Fri.-Sun. $17.50 Up through High School Groups
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on December 21 press performance
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