Curtain Calls

Review: 'Misalliance'
Hilberry marries Shaw's chatty comedy with invigorating performances

After attending the opening night performance of George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance" at the Hilberry Theatre in Detroit this past Friday night, it's easy to understand why its original production lasted a mere 11 performances way back in 1910.
What else would you expect from a comedy subtitled, "A Debate in One Sitting," that skewered nearly every sacred cow of the early 20th century?
Yet despite its idiosyncrasies, the final production of the Hilberry season serves as an excellent send-off for a troupe of talented third-year graduate students whose costumes will be hard to fill by those they'll leave behind!
"Misalliance" is among the earliest of Shaw's "discussion plays," a new form of theater he created in which a continuous conversation takes place in a single setting. In this particular case, the gabfest occurs May 31, 1909 in the home of a wealthy, middleclass British shop owner, John Tarleton, whose daughter, Hypatia, is engaged to marry Bentley Summerhays, the intelligent, but spoiled son a much revered government official, Lord Summerhays, who drops in for a visit.
As the genre implies, nothing much happens until the final seconds of the first act. Characters enter and then they exit, with the in-between moments filled with idle conversation and highfalutin platitudes; much of the banter – despite its wit – seems pointless.
Adventure finally arrives – and tedium relieved – when Shaw drops a plane onto the Tarleton's greenhouse about midway through the script. Not only do the two survivors wreak havoc on what had been a civil and very Victorian discourse, but the coincidental arrival of an unexpected visitor seeking revenge kicks the story into high gear.
And as you would expect, secrets are revealed and misalliances are corrected. What Shaw leaves unanswered, however, is this: Does HOW two people come together determine whether or not their marriage succeeds – or is it all just a crapshoot?
It wasn't just the play's chatty nature that turned off early 20th century audiences; its subject matter didn't exactly tickle their fancies, either!
Shaw, a controversial playwright with Socialist leanings, created "Misalliance" to build upon his examination of relationships that began a few years earlier with "Getting Married." So not only does the institution of marriage come under fire, Shaw also tears into gender roles, class distinction, aging, courtship, honor, family and capitalism; his disdain for religion is also abundantly clear.
It was a concept doomed to offend pretty much everyone outside the playwright's circle of intellectual, far-left leaning friends. And those whose knickers WEREN'T tied in knots were simply confused – or bored? – by this relatively new style of theater.
But Shaw got the last laugh: Much of what he railed against was eventually swept into the dustbin of history, and "Misalliance" has become one of the most-oft produced scripts in the playwright's catalogue.

The Hilberry production

Director Anthony Schmitt, who spent 24 years teaching in Wayne State University's Department of Theatre before retiring a few years back, is a smart man.
Because of its wordiness and lack of action early in the show, "Misalliance" requires precise staging and top-notch acting to keep its audience from nodding off into dreamland. A multiple award-winning director, Schmitt's talents were never in question; success, then, would be in the hands of the show's nine actors.
Six of those roles went to senior members of the Hilberry's acting company. It was a wise choice, with hilarious results!
One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is having the opportunity to observe young actors become experts at their craft. Each year a new troupe of talented performers arrives at the Hilberry, eager to embark on a three-year journey towards a master's degree. Based on their earliest efforts, it's fun to guess who will standout from the pack and who won't; some shine from the moment they arrive, while it takes time for others to blossom.
This graduating class, in particular, has been especially fascinating to watch.
In his first season at the Hilberry, Aaron T. Moore was the only member of his class to receive a 2003 Wilde Award nomination. Few will ever forget his memorable role as the young girl in "Cloud 9." Moore proudly ends his career at the Hilberry with yet another fine performance, that of John Tarleton, a husband and father who is more interested in opening free libraries than running his business.
Nominated the following year – and the first from their class to receive Wilde Awards -were Tony Bozutto (for "Lovers and Executioners") and Nick DePinto (for "The Kentucky Cycle"). The two have been tearing up the stage all season long, and this production is no different. They conclude their years in the Hilberry program with excellent performances: Bozutto as the somewhat fey Bentley Summerhays, and DePinto as the hot-headed son of John Tarleton.
Chris Roady -who only SEEMS like he's won a Wilde Award in the past because of the number of acceptance speeches he's made on behalf of others- gives an energetic performance as Julius Baker, the man who seeks revenge but finds himself in one heck of a mess instead.
With women's roles in the past dominated by several strong – but now departed – actresses, Amanda Rae Jones and Lisa Betz have finally been given the chance to strut their stuff. Jones' Hypatia is the perfect blend of vixen and innocence, while Betz's Mrs. Tarleton is her daughter's polar opposite: uptight and often perplexed.
Not to be outdone, the production's three first-and-second-year students also step up to the plate with fine performances.
Especially notable is Carly Germany as the Polish acrobat who represents Shaw's ideal woman of the 20th century.
The imminent departure of these and the other soon-to-be graduates – Andrew Huff, Mike Anthony and Mark Robson -; leaves pretty big shoes to fill in the upcoming season. Who will rise to the challenge?
It'll be interesting to see what NEXT year brings to the Hilberry Theatre!
"Misalliance" Performed in Repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through May 14. Tickets: $15 – $22. 313-577-2960.
The Bottom Line: It's a fond and very funny farewell for six of the Hilberry's soon-to-be graduates!


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