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The Countess at the Beckett Theatre
Some Facts About The Leading Characters
The Countess at the Beckett by Chloe Veltman
"How is it that all bachelors marry goddesses, but husbands live only with women?" mourns John Ruskin to his eager at protege, Everett Millais, from their cozy Parnassal retreat in Scotland.
In Gregory Murphy's intelligent and lovely dramatization of the private life of Britain's foremost Victorian art critic and aesthete, Ruskin's wife Effie scrabbles at the foot of the holy mountain while her husband shouts abuse from the top. "You're not what I think a woman should be" he tells her, and yet more plainly: "I don't like the way you look, sound or move."
Vainly attempting to conceal his own sexual and mental neurosis under nervously beetling brows, Ruskin tells his wife she is sick and mad, until she almost comes to believe it herself. Like Prince Bolkonski in War and Peace, these nineteenth century husbands would sooner go off to war than admit their wives. In a drama which frequently pits desire against the constraints of society, Ruskin cold shoulders both his spouse and the marital code of conduct by deliberately leaving Effie alone with Millais.
Tripping over his heels with innocent questions concerning his mentor's connubial iciness, Millais' reverence for Ruskin fades as his infatuation for Mrs. Ruskin (whom he nicknames The Countess) grows. In an erotically incandescent scene over a sketch-book, Millais deftly shows Effie how to draw the perfect rose with a few simple strokes. Prickly with need for one another but caught out by propriety, the energy of a longing kiss begs for a way around the law.
With every diabolical gesture of Ruskin's, so Effie's outward indignation grows. As the object of one man's hatred and another man's love, a third Effie emerges from Jennifer Woodward's startling acting: a defiant, sexy Scotswoman, exhausted from juggling poisoned stoicism and unrequited lust. Never sentimental, but brisk, sweet and incredulous, Effie allures as much as James Riordan's Ruskin repels. Playing the villain with deadly panache, Riordan also endows Ruskin with an eerie sense of humor, obscuring the darkness inside. Jy Murphy's fresh-faced ingenue provides a shining foil to Riordan's shadiness; as the drama unfolds, we watch him progress from a naive pupil to a master-artist, lover and spouse.
Following an awkwardly cramped opening on the tiny forestage, the play slides gracefully from start to finish with hardly a line out of place. Mixing his palette with humor and seething drama, Gregory Murphy's rich dramaturgical canvas is matched by Ludovica Villar-Hauser's careful direction and some remarkable ensemble acting. Frederick Neumann and Honora Fergusson are fabulously reactionary as Ruskin's puritanical parents. In a funny comedy-of-manners scene between the indignant couple and Effie's confidante, the witty and sensible Lady Eastlake (Kristin Griffith), the play steps momentarily into the world of Congreve and Wycherly.
While melodrama and rose-tinged romance swathe this Victorian tale in conventions of the era, it remains a thoroughly modern production. Villar-Hauser keeps the emotion bubbling gently, an undertow pulling against a swiftly-moving narrative. The atmospheric jazz-piano music by Dewey Dellay punctuates every scene with a soulful aside, as Mark Symczak's compact sets and Christopher Lione's gorgeous costumes provide a colorful commentary. In The Countess, anti-Romantic sentiment reconciles itself with the power of the imagination: somewhere between abused muse and lofty countess, lies a natural, everyday woman.
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Some Facts About The Leading Characters
John Ruskin's professional star continued to rise, not only as an artist and critic but scientist, poet, environmentalist, philosopher. He founded the Ruskin School of Drawing where his lectures were always crowded. But despite his prolific intellectual success, his private life remained a mess. His marriage from Effie who, incidentally was a cousin, was annulled. in 1954. While she caught his fancy at age 12, she so repulsed him as a woman that he couldn't consummate the marriage. Just four years later, at age 39, he became infatuated with a 10-year-old girl named Rose de la Touche and would have married her when she came of age if her parents hadn't interfered.. When Rose died in 1875 he became subject to bouts of depression from which he suffered for the rest of his life
As for Effie (born Ephemia Chalmers Gray), she did find happiness and with none other than Millais.
Lady Eastlake's scrappy rescue mission of her friend was par for a woman who was not only married to a powerful man but forged a career of her own. A year after the events of the play, her husband, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake became director of the National Gallery. She was active in preserving his legacy. In her own right, Lady Eastlake (that's Lady Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake) was an essayist and translator. -- Elyse Sommer
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