Marian Evans' head is extraordinary. At the beginning of Echo Theatre's production of A Most Dangerous Woman by Cathy Tempelsman at the Bath House Cultural Center, the phrenologist (head bump-ologist) examining her can hardly retain his composure as he fondles her frontal lobe. What's got him in such a tizzy is not just the arrangement of bumps but the overall size. Not that size matters, but she could almost be mistaken for a man. Which is altogether appropriate, actually.
You see, Mary Ann Evans or Marian Evans was George Eliot, or he was a she. Of course, that was also while she was living as Mrs. Lewes, though she wasn't married to Mr. Lewes. He was already married to another Mrs. Lewes. Confused? So was she but it didn't stop her from becoming a leading writer of the Victorian Era as a he. So, much so that she received fan mail from Charles Dickens.
Worthy of one of his plotlines, her struggle to discover her artistic, as well as personal, identity is tailor-made for dramatization. Playwright Tempelsman capitalizes on the romance with refinement, bringing her story to stage in one of Echo Theatre's winners of their Big Shout Out playwriting contest. Director David Meglino makes the most of the smallest moments in this sentimental saga of the literate set. If you are waiting anxiously for the next season of PBS' Downton Abbey, this is the perfect prescription to tide you over.
When we first meet the aforementioned femme, played energetically by Emily Scott Banks, she's consulting a phrenologist, George Combe (Adrian S. Churchill). Not exactly the nail salon but just as effective for getting the exposition out and twice as fun. In fact, Churchhill is to be commended for keeping the clarity in the midst of the comedy. You can practically hear the farce at the door though he doesn't let it in.
Not that it isn't funny. It's that and more. The truth is that the play has a range of tone appropriate for someone's life story. It's a sort of VH1 Behind the Music, but for a novelist of the Romantic Era. Instead of clips of music to underscore and tie together the different periods of obscurity, fame, derision and acceptance, Tempelsman uses passages from Eliot's writing. These are performed as curtain-front scene-bridgers.
It's a mostly successful device due in large part to their brevity and the commitment of an ensemble that plunges in despite the smorgasbord of accents required. Except for Banks, everyone takes a turn at one point or another. Though best when from the Eliot oeuvre, they also branch out into chorus-like work moving the story forward or filling us in.
All of this is to say that Banks' accompanying company works as hard as she in the course of the performance. And that is saying something because she's rarely off-stage. After all, Marian Evans/George Eliot is the subject of the show and Banks is unquestionably the star. The audience was quick to its feet opening night when it was her turn for applause. Banks' Evans is believably strong and insecure or more aptly strong because of her insecurity. That dialectic keeps the long show watchable for her performance alone.
But there is a laundry list of notable performances surrounding hers. Russell Schultz plays George Lewes, the philandering philosopher who catches Marian on the rebound from a painfully funny Brian Witkowicz as Herbert Spencer. Jessica Cavanagh plays the longtime friend, Barbara Bodichon, and Randy Pearlman is the caring—if disappointed—brother, Isaac Evans. Both want what's best for her though neither agree much on what that is. Morgan McClure, Scott Milligan, Jordan Willis, along with Churchill, round out the talented ensemble.
Cindy M. Ernst has designed a wall-less set for this "fly on the wall" show. The use of a Bath House-wide curtain makes for facile furniture changes and lends a vastness uncommon to the space. You can see this play moving from here to a much larger venue with a similarly sized budget.
But not before a little tweaking. As with most new works the best writing is at the beginning. The narrative feels the weight of biography late in the first act and never manages to shake it. But by then, you are so hooked by this fascinating woman you don't care.
It's to director Meglino's credit that he keeps the actors honest, trusting to the subtext. That is with the exception of the chorus men in dresses. Pointed subtext is very British, don't you know. But of course, so are men in dresses. Unfortunately, one of these things is not like the other. One of these things doesn't belong.
All in all, this is a play for any fan of George Eliot's work. And if you are not, it proves you should be.