The Art of Subjugation 

Victorian love triangle is a scandal -- for what it does to the woman.

One of the great pleasures of being a theater critic -- and yes, Virginia, we do take pleasure in things -- is having the opportunity to take a longitudinal view, of a certain playwright's work, a theater company's development, or particularly the arc of an actor's career. How many other people, besides an actor's family members, get to see them in virtually everything they do? I haven't seen everything Brian Keith Russell has done, but I've had at least eight doses since his turn as a laconic security guard in the film version of Haiku Tunnel two years ago. Russell's a big guy with a big presence, and is often cast as a cheerful if not-too-bright blusterer (Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Major Petkoff in Arms and the Man). He's solid and often fantastic in these roles, but it's exciting to see director Domenique Lozano (who played opposite Russell in Arms) use him in an entirely different way -- as the refined, cerebral, and volatile art critic John Ruskin in Gregory Murphy's The Countess. Russell has validated Lozano's risk-taking; he's magnetic as the man some call the most important Victorian after the Queen herself, blending self-absorption and casual cruelty with a heartbreaking innocence that comes to light near the end of the play.

Russell's casting is just one of the surprises in this production, based on the true story of a perilous love triangle between Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the impetuous young painter John Everett Millais -- a true Victorian scandal. There are some juicy twists in the plot itself, which it is difficult to discuss without divulging. Suffice it to say that Ruskin and Effie seemed to have had a loving and supportive marriage, but the appearance of Millais on the scene revealed serious fissures. The Countess (Millais' name for Effie) opens with the three packing for a sabbatical in Effie's native Scotland. We soon learn that Ruskin worries for her health. Her behavior -- which modern audiences quickly recognize as that of a woman with a mind of her own -- is what the Victorians referred to as hysterical, believed treatable through bleedings and Bedlam. The trip to Scotland does nothing to "cure" Effie's condition, and when the three return to London they face hard choices and potential tragedy.

It's striking that many of Ruskin's imperatives to his wife draw laughter from the audience. It should be noted that in 19th-century Britain, men held tremendous power over their wives -- the power to confine a woman to her home, to control her finances, to restrict visitors, even to institutionalize a wife who wouldn't "mind" her "master." Remember that women didn't get the vote in Britain until 1918, and then they had to be at least thirty years old (they were granted the vote on the same basis as men ten years later). Many landless men were similarly disenfranchised, as Britain only invested the wealthy with the right to vote -- universal suffrage for everyone over eighteen didn't happen until 1969. When Ruskin warns Effie that she had better start doing as he tells her or she's off to Bedlam, he is in deadly earnest; she is in real danger.

What really comes to light in this intense production is how Effie's struggle to be free of her marriage tests all the relationships -- between the spouses, between Ruskin and his protégé, between Effie and her in-laws, even between Effie and her dear friend the liberated Lady Eastlake, who has the audacity to work as an essayist. Jessa Brie Berkner's Effie is a marvel of stifled longings and tight-pressed lips; Berkner is excellent as a vivacious woman who can't hold her temper in check much longer but risks scandal if she behaves as she pleases. Her foils -- Ruskin's hidebound parents -- would be hilarious if they weren't so scary. Realizing that much of Ruskin's inability to function outside of an abstract world of Beauty and Art stems from his moldering closeness with his family makes Ruskin more sympathetic and Effie's plight more cloying. On the surface this play might be about a love triangle, but in its depths are revealed issues of familial responsibility, societal expectation, and the tattered, clinging remains of an outmoded system seemingly designed to prevent true self-expression or love.

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