Echo Theatre: A Most Glorious Fraud

“I shall be resolute in preserving my incognito.”

It’s 1858. Marian Evans’ mind is driving her crazy. Women aren’t supposed to think much, or develop analytical faculties, or move to London to pursue careers as editors and rent housing from men of questionable reputation and moral standards. But that’s just what she’s done. It’s driving her crazy (not to mention alienating her conventional family who wish she’d just marry a respectable gentleman and settle down to raise a family). Echo Theatre’s production of Cathy Templesman’s two-act play A Most Dangerous Woman opens with Evans’ visit to a smarmy phrenologist quack, where she learns after he examines her head that her “huge” brain is “more like a man’s than a woman’s.” She is outwardly dismayed but thrilled at the same time. Maybe there’s justification for her unconventional aspirations and actions?

Nothing feels quaint or sedate about Templesman’s play as staged. It’s a tender psychological homage to the life, loves and career of George Eliot. That’s the pen name Marian Evans had to use to publish the realistic, issue-driven novels that earned her the reputation as one of the Victorian era’s greatest writers. Herein lies the conflict thread that drives the play. Who is Marian? Why does she hide behind a false identity to publish? Why does she live as a recluse as her chosen life partner is a married man whose children she raises? And what will happen when she reveals her true identity and lifestyle? Resonates with certain “lifestyle” and “marriage” issues under public scrutiny today, doesn’t it?

Echo Theatre’s director David Meglino and his versatile cast of nine have mounted a tidy, rapid-fire production of this grandly eclectic work, rendering it accessible and engaging in the Bath House Cultural Center’s limited, intimate space. As the play unfolds it feels like it belongs mounted in a resplendent, ornate proscenium theater, the kind with red velvet upholstery and prominently displayed brass plaques by the door attesting to the venue’s historical significance. Yet Meglino’s careful yet taut direction goes far to create the appropriate ambience for the work in the diminutive black box space. His energized, committed ensemble brings the confusions and conflicted situations of Eliot/ Evans’ reality to vivid, tangible life. Emily Scott Banks makes a compelling, fascinating Marian/George Eliot: plain, severe and overbearing, yet passionate, vulnerable and deeply conflicted about the shadowy fraud her life becomes. Banks’ Eliot presents a real challenge for any “average” man to follow much less keep up with. As George Lewes, frustrated scientist and Marian’s lover/consort, Russell Schultz reveals awe as much as love for Marian and her accomplishments, almost as though he possesses her as another unique specimen in his vast scientific collection. His acceptance of her success hints at uncalculated opportunism as much as devotion; Schultz in no way incorporates anachronistic modernistic sensibility or exploitative stereotype in his portrayal.  He explores the truth layers in Templesman’s script that define an ambitious, unconventional man who finds himself entranced with an exceptional woman and willingly encourages and benefits from her talents. Their relationship is as original as their two personalities and intriguing to watch unfold.

The focused, entertaining roster of players includes Morgan McClure, Randy Pearlman, Adrian Churchill (divinely creepy as the phrenologist), Jessica Cavanaugh (Marian’s protective proto-suffragist confidante), Scott Milligan, Jordan Willis and Brian Witkowicz. Not a miscast thespian in the lot. Templesman’s play is fresh and unseasoned, could use a judicious edit in Act Two to clarify its denouement. But it’s a marvelous candid portrayal of the emergence of a literary giant told from her creative perspective in a world that tolerated little brilliant originality in its women.

Echo Theatre presents A Most Dangerous Woman by Cathy Tempelsman at the Bath House Cultural Center on the shore of White Rock Lake in Dallas, Thursdays through Saturday evenings through September 24, 2011. Directed by David Meglino.

Tickets: reservations@echotheatre.org

About George Eliot/ Marian Evans: George Eliot was one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She authored seven novels, including Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda. Their realism and psychological insight changed the way novels were written.

About the playwright: Cathy Tempelsman’s full-length play about George Eliot, A Most Dangerous Woman, has had readings at New York’s DR2 Theatre (directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.), Primary Stages (also in New York), Luna Stage (New Jersey) and England’s Nuneaton Town Hall.. Her monologue, A Blessing on Your Sole, was produced at Barrow Group Theatre and her one-act, Missing, was selected for Short Stuff VI: Awakenings. Her work has appeared in the Boston Theatre Marathon as well.

During the past few years, Cathy has been a guest artist at the Kennedy Center’s Playwriting Intensive, part of its American College Theatre Festival, and has studied at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee.

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