Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome a grande dame of the theatre in her triumphant return to the New York stage, Fanny Kemble! Don’t know her, you say? Her life spanned the entirety of the 19th century. Born into a theatrical family, she was the toast of the stage, playing and reading Shakespeare from her native England to her adopted home, the United States. She was an actress, a lady, a socialite, a loving wife and … a reluctant slave-owner. Her greatest performance would become the dramatic transformation of her own psyche from naïve artiste to a quiet radical. Still sounding not too familiar? Then come be dazzled by Prospect Theater’s excellent production of Laura Marks’s play, Unbound: The Journals of Fanny Kemble.
Based on the journals Fanny Kemble wrote throughout her life, Unbound engagingly dramatizes her experience of the theater world of a bygone era and the cataclysmic forces that would forever change Antebellum America. After wowing audiences in London and New York with her Shakespearean performances, Fanny surrenders to that ultimate entrapment called romantic love. She marries a gentle Philadelphian aristocrat, Pierce Butler (Austin Jones), and insists on following him to his place of business, the family rice plantation on Butler’s Island, Georgia. There, Fanny learns about the true source of their wealth and the despicable realities of American slavery.
Wanting to improve the lives of the slaves, she gives them aid and comfort in assorted small ways and increasingly challenges Pierce to improve their state. As her assertiveness grows, she discovers the duplicity of the man she married. Like a Kate Chopin husband, Pierce lovingly belittles her like child. With her protests rejected, she, like Nora in A Doll House, grasps the elemental selfishness and immaturity of her husband. Fanny, instead, matures into a soft revolutionary who breaks Slave Codes and marital norms and uses the stage for performing her own works of progressive art.
What made Prospect Theater’s show such an enjoyable experience was that every aspect of its production shimmered with intelligence, sensitivity, and theatricality. At its heart was a text that was insightful and featured well-crafted vignettes that smoothly stitched together the dramatic events of Fanny’s life. The actors’ performances, which included slipping in and out of a myriad of characterizations, were universally strong. But it was Davis McCallum’s inspired direction that made this production rich with dramatic delights.
Perhaps McCallum’s most important choice was to have Fanny played by five actresses (Sandi Carroll, Beth Dixon, Laura Jordan, Jenni-Lynn McMillin, and Michele Vazquez). Having five women play Fanny not only dramatized the different Fannys over time but also captured the numerous emotional angles of each dramatic moment. By limiting emotional investment in the characters and merely suggesting the milieu of the 19th century, the production had the Brechtian quality of compelling the audience instead to think about the issues.
Another critical choice was having actors play characters of contrasting skin colors and of wide-ranging agendas. This was apropos not only because of the motif of theatre and the desire to be all sorts of characters, but it also highlighted the different internal and external influences that shaped Fanny’s life. Despite a text of monologs and short scenes, the movement of the story, even the blocking of the actions, flowed continuously like a charming 19th-century dance.
Equally impressive were the designs of both the set (Sandra Goldmark) and the costumes (Naomi Wolff). With its colorless shelving and evidentiary file boxes, the set unnervingly presented resonating images of a sterilized, deconstructive present and a romanticized past. The costumes, too, underscored the conflicts of 19th-century Americans. The women, with their body-trapping, body-exposing corsets and transparent skirts, and the men, with their stiffening and stifling formalwear, exhibited the inculcated constrictions on natural thought and action. Lucrecia Briceno’s lighting design and Fitz Patton’s sound design also were potent and bold in their ability to capture so many differing moods and moments.
Unbound was one of those rare quality Off-Off-Broadway productions that illustrated the power of theater even with the modest of means to present it. It was a literate, charming production that skipped lightly from moment to moment, yet proffered humor, thought, and pathos. It was a theatre-lover’s piece that made clear how inevitably collaborative an art form theater really is, with all stage elements essential.
(Also featuring Cedric Hayman and Peter McCain.)
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Copyright 2005 Adam Cooper