Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Countess"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey

Victorian Ornamentation

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

The New York production of "The Countess" has been creating a lot of buzz .......mainly because the play is based on real people and some historians object to the way the play treats them. There's no denying that "The Countess" has become a phenomenon, with N.Y. audiences dressing up in Victorian finery to attend the show. Thanks to The Nora Theatre Company (at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre through November 5th) we can judge for ourselves.

Gr4egory Murphy's costume drama about the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, his wife Effie and the preRaphaelite artist John Everett Millais plays like an episode of Masterpiece Theatre: the critic champions the young painter, then his wife falls in love with her husband's protege, and he with her. But the time is the mid-nineteenth century, and divorce is considered a scandal.

Curiously, Murphy's play stops just as Effie sues for divorce, so the bulk of "The Countess" chronicles the dissolution of her unhappy marriage and not the romance of new love. Perhaps even more curiously, Murphy punctuates the story with secret, which is supposed to make all the sturm und drang worth the effort. It made me replay Act I in my head to find hints about the revelation, and only led me to suspect that Murphy was stacking the deck against Ruskin. It might have been more compelling if Ruskin weren't such a bastard. I also suspect a red herring in Effie's decision to tell her husband outright that "Millais may be in love with me."

Problems with the play aside.....what the Nora production has going for it is a luminous performance by Darra Yomtov Herman as the quintessential pre-Raphaelite beauty...and the most gorgeous Victorian gowns by Gail Astrid Buckley, in sumptuous shades of rust and gold which perfectly match Effie's red hair and translucent complexion.

Daniel Gidron's direction and David Dowling's melodramatic music sweep ther action along with the grand gestures of a Merchant-Ivory film. Edward J. McDonough and Deena Mazur provide comic relief as Ruskin's stuffy parents (especially a hilarious exit for Mazer) but it's really difficult to hang a play on an obnoxious bore (and Steven Barkheimer gives an overwrought performance as the critic). There really wasn't a point of view. It's called "The Countess" (which is Millais' name for Effie) but it seems to be more about Ruskin. Although Christopher Thorn is dashing as the painter, it isn't about him. I wasn't sure whose play it was. Shelley Brown gives a smart, spunky performance as Effie's liberated friend, and Charles Linshaw is charming as trhe sympathetic retainer.

Season after saeason Nora brings hit New York shows to Boston so we don't have to despair if we missed their debut productions, and that is reason alone for celebration

"The Countess" (till 5 November)
Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide