Review: “My Dear Miss Chancellor” by Caitlin Gilman. Directed by Elizabeth Hershly. With Tracy Leigh, Sophia Franzella, Hannah Schnabel, Jasmine Joshua, Alysha Curry, Laurie Utterback, Mike Gilson, Steven Sterne, Stacey Bush, Kendra Pierce, Sarah Winsor, Alice Bridgforth, Matthew Middleton. Now through November 14, 2015 at Annex Theatre, on the relatively safe Capitol Hill, Seattle.
My Thursday night theater experience was problematic. On Friday, October 23, 2015 I had a much better one even though the theater company in question has a budget that’s probably about 1/50th of the previous night’s company. But, Annex Theatre has figured out LONG ago how to make a dollar stretch with its clever DIY theater, most of which is locally written by company members. Not everything Annex does is a home run, but even their less succesful attempts tend to be interesting excursions into the stranger realms of less explored dramatic opportunity. Annex is a company that enjoys tackling genres that most theater companies avoid at all costs. Science fiction. Fantasy. Horror. Mafioso Nuns. And, now, they’ve gleefully embraced the world of horny Victorian lesbians and their complicated mid 19th century love lives that seem to involve copious amounts of chest heaving wooing, chest heaving fencing, chest heaving beer drinking and probably some chest heaving scissoring. Oh, and heart crushing revenge.
The play is called “My Dear Miss Chancellor” and it’s a world premiere from Annex company member Caitlin Gilman and….it’s an absolute delight. A witty charmer with very clever dialogue, it brazenly takes on a rather corny, typical romance novel plot of forbidden love, revenge and retribution but does so with great intelligence and an attention to detail. Apparently, Ms Gilman has been reading, watching, and absorbing the speech patterns from BBC bodice rippers and Barbara Courtland novels for years because she really nails the inflated and florid rhythms of the Victorian romance genre. The snappy dialogue just clips along with the right tone of knowing satire while also being respectful of its genre. There’s nothing WRONG with florid romance; it’s great fun when done correctly and Ms Gilman’s winsome pastiche of Victorian love told through the lens of scandalous lesbians is a welcome addition to the Annex’s usual stable of crazy sci-fi and horror.
It’s also aided by astutely confident direction from Elizabeth Hershly who must juggle 13 actors and a lot of set changes on the Annex’s not very large stage, and the usual clever design work from the Annex team including a big effort from the Costume Department for a show with a huge cast and numerous period costume changes. Kudos to Samantha Armitage and her crew.
The strong cast brings the story to life and is led with excellent work from leads Sophia Franzella as the new girl in town, the titular Miss Chancellor, who’s come to London to find a husband but instead discovers her Sapphic instincts and is romanced by the proudly fierce renegade Hazel McGovern, superbly played by Tracy Leigh. Ms Franzella nicely plays both the demure side of a naive girl as well as the strong willed passions of a young woman experiencing her first great romance. Ms Leigh, who never fails to intrigue us with her performances, even when she’s trapped in inferior work, is a bit of a revelation here as she coolly plays the many different layers of a multi-faceted character. She’s crisply restrained when Hazel must present a cool facade to the world but also passionately unrestrained when her life starts to crumble and she thinks she’s lost the love of her life. The pair of actors are excellently matched and they are the hottest romantic couple portrayed on a Seattle stage in quite a long time. Most opposite sex acting couples can’t conjure up this much heat.
The supporting cast is also very strong with two terrific performances from the show’s “villains’, Jasmine Joshua as Mrs. Shepard, Hazel’s revenge seeking jilted lover, and Alysha Curry as Miss Browning, the new lover to Mrs. Shepard. Their lusty revenge is planned in between bouts of fencing at the secret society where the Victorian lesbians of mid-19th London like to meet, or in between equally robust bouts of lovemaking in Mrs. Shepard’s boudoir. Both actresses seem to be very much enjoying their bodice ripping villainy and both give delightful performances.
But, the entire cast is quite good, down to the smallest roles. Hannah Schnabel charms as Hazel’s maid who narrates this torrid tale. Mike Gilson is delightfully tongue tied in that droll British way as the older man who comes to woo Miss Chancellor away (unbeknownst to him) from Hazel. All the other actors superbly craft fresh individual performances for every character they portray.
One slight caveat to all this praise. The second act has some pacing problems largely caused by the numerous and complicated set changes. Some of that could be trimmed back by relying on less actual furniture for all those changes. There are a couple scenes that don’t really require all that extra scenery and the time it consumes. This show also features live music accompaniment especially used during the long set changes but the mournful music being played by the fine cellist only adds to the slow, “dragged out” feeling during those changes. The second act ran about an hour but story wise, it feels like it needs to be condensed a bit. Tightening up those changes would certainly help that pacing problem.
Finally, kudos to the actors and their dedication to learning the art of fencing. Even if “My Dear Miss Chancellor” wasn’t a saucy charmer of a play, I still might recommend it just for the scenes of chemise clad Victorian women going at each other ala Errol Flynn while drunk on beer and Sapphic passion.
Check it out.