Milwaukee Rep: "Armadale"
Wednesday night, we went to the Milwaukee Rep's Powerhouse Theatre for their production of "Armadale," Jeffrey Hatcher's audacious adaptation of the novel by Wilkie Collins.
Known as a "sensation novel" this work by Collins is a work that forms a transition between the "Gothic" novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the crime and detective stories of the later 19th century.
The plot opens with an exposition, in which we find out that a young man (Allan2) has been adopted and made the heir of a wealthy Barbados planter who has disinherited his profligate son (Allan1), on the condition that the young man adopt the family name of Armadale. The old man dies, Allan2 inherits, and is set up to marry the daughter of a wealthy Englishman. Allan1 steals Allan2's intended bride. Pursuing the couple, Allan2 overtakes them in the midst of a shipwreck, and, instead of rescuing Allan1, ensures his death. Eighteen months later, Allan2, not being able to live with his guilt, has wasted his fortune and drunk himself to death.
Flash forward twenty years, and we find that both men had conceived posthumous sons, each, again, named Allan. The difference is that Allan3, the son of Allan1, has been raised in wealthy comfort by his mother, and is blissfully ignorant of the circumstances of his father's death. Allan4, the son of Allan2, is a penniless drifter burdened by the knowlege of his father's crime and obsessed by the idea that history might repeat itself, for all that he bears the other Allan Armadale no ill will. Further, they are both haunted by the ominous woman with the red shawl, who represents an unknown danger out of the past.
Hatcher has adapted the 1866 semi-epistolary novel in a script that relies on artifice to good effect. The cast function as a chorus, proving spare exposition and transition that would otherwise have been awkward to put into dialog. ("In London, thirteen days have passed--.") This is very helpful, for the main story timeline stretches out over a period of months, and a potentially bewildering number of locations, even with condensing and cleaning up of the plot. The locations were provided by a compact multileveled set dressed with enough period style furnishings, and furnished with convenient draperies for lurking behind or for drawing over scenes too shocking for the audience's delicate sensiblities, such as most, but not entirely all, the implied sex.
The cast of ten players between them presented twenty-one roles, with switches between characters frequently being immediate and onstage. A scarf is pulled up to hide a clerical collar and a risible wig produced (in one occasion, literally out of a hat) a change of posture and voice, and the upright Reverend Brock is replaced by the Gollum-like Bashwood. A slatternly undone bodice distinguishes the vicious Mrs. Oldershaw from the definitely middle-class Mrs. Milroy. It all works very cleverly. In one scene, a man is murdered and left lying on a bed. Second later, as the villain's henchman, the same actor is roused from "his" bed, and sent out to dispose of the murdered man's body. It is all good fun, and the audience enjoyed it and seemed to have no problem following who was who.
Brian Vaughn, as "Allan Armadale" (Allans 1 & 3) and Michael Gotch, as "Ozias Midwinter," (a.k.a., Allans 2 & 4) are the protagonists, but they take a back seat to the redoubtable Lydia Gwilt, vibrantly played by Deborah Staples. Armadale is the true-blue British idiot, er, hero, who insists on seeing no evil in those around him, insulated by his incorrigable good humor and good fortune. "Midwinter", as played by Gotch, is a man who has plumbed the depths of depression and only gradually comes to believe that there is hope in the world. They and others are skillfully mainipulated by Gwilt, whom I must say should rank as one of the most resourceful villains in literature, and I hope this play will rescue her from undeserved obscurity. (Collins took considerable flak from moralists over the character of the strong-minded Gwilt and her shocking behavior. However, the novel was a signficant hit. The more things change, the more they stay the same--.)
The melodramatic plot and stylized script call for competent acting and stage skills rather than deep characterization, and that was what we got for the most part. Staples as Gwilt gets the lion's share of scenery to chew and is excellent doing it. Vaugn and Gotch are good, and the Milwaukee theatrical Pickering family (James, Rose, and Steve) haul out most of their bag of character tricks playing six supporting characters. All of the rest of the cast got well into the spirit of the show, with Peter Silbert as Rev. Brock/Bashwood and Emily Trask as Allan3's fiance, Neely Milroy, were also worthy of particular mention.
So, we enjoyed the show very much. Our enjoyment was marred by only one thing, the pointless use of theatrical fog. Throughout the entire performance the hall was permeated by thin layer of fog, evidently intended to add to the "atmosphere". Thankfully, the tech crew restrained themselves somewhat, so that sitting through the show was a trial for Georgie, but not impossible. However, the fact that they did hold back at all meant that there really wasn't much visual effect other than making the beams from the lighting particularly well defined. I wish there were a way to get the word out to theatrical managers that even the most innocuous fog products are not "harmless" to everyone, and to get them to advertise up front that the show uses fog, they way they now do with gunshots or strobe lights.