A play’s world premiere is big news anywhere, no less so than in Madison (Morris Township) Saturday evening, Sept. 21, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The sold-out opening-night performance of Cathy Tempelsman’s biographical drama, “A Most Dangerous Woman,” thrilled the audience, which unanimously rose to its feet as if on cue to acclaim Aedin Moloney, the actress debuting with the company in the substantial title role.
Before Act I, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte addressed the audience, making no attempt to disguise any irony of the debut of a new work, “As a fully classic theatre, we always perform plays by a bunch of dead guys.” This play, set in early 19th-century London and coastal Scotland, she said, “concerns the one author who in many ways deserves to be known as Shakespeare’s successor.”
Dr. George Combe, a phrenologist (or, a “specialist in bumpology,” as the character of George Henry Lewes later derisively puts it) examines the title character’s head at the play’s outset. The doctor—played by Andy Paterson, who also assumed a variety of other minor roles—later confides to a colleague that his subject is “a most dangerous woman indeed,” due to her brilliant intellect.
Aedin Moloney gave a committed performance portraying a woman known variously through the work as Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans, Mrs. George Henry Lewes and the author George Eliot. She was costumed by Hugh Hanson and wigged and made up to uncannily resemble the literary giant of unremarkable appearance who wielded remarkable power in the pen and created some of the most beloved novels in 19th-century British literature, including “Middlemarch,” “The Mill on the Floss” and “Daniel Deronda.”
The playwright ingeniously staged various scenes from George Eliot’s output, most notably from latter chapters of “Adam Bede.” We hear a young woman’s riveting confession to burying alive her newborn baby. In all these scenes, the author, in dimmed lighting, appears to be witnessing actual events that she would later chronicle in her novels, or perhaps we peer through a window into her keen imagination and witness her creative powers in action. At the climax of Act I, eight characters from nearly as many novels simultaneously declaim such passages in a rising cacophony that nearly drives the author to madness. All supporting actors assumed numerous roles and underwent considerable costume changes to facilitate these vivid enactments.
As George Henry Lewes, Ames Adamson, a veteran with The Shakespeare Theatre, expressed believable tender affection for the author, who assumed roles of her own in his life, namely: common-law wife and stepmother to his three stepsons. (“It’s complicated,” she says when explaining their relationship to her stodgy brother, Isaac Evans—played by Rob Krakovski.)
Other outstanding supporting roles include Deanne Lorette as Barbara Bodichon, the author’s best friend, and John Little as John Blackwood, the editor who boldly published works by the then-unknown and mysterious George Eliot, and who weathered the publicity storm when the author’s true identity eventually came to light.
At curtain call, incredibly only nine actors took the stage. The cast list confirmed just nine actors took part in the play, but as one ticket-holder said upon filing out, “They must have portrayed 30 characters altogether.” Truly the tight ensemble, stellar performances and thought-provoking script are just three reasons to see “A Most Dangerous Woman” in its limited run.
Performances extended through October 12.
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Newark Performing Arts column
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