In today’s world that is seemingly fraught with violence and carnivalesque politics, Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle at Lifeline is a shockingly refreshing piece. It deals mainly in the language of love, and portrays it as a game, complete with a massive game board set reminiscent of Chutes and Ladders designed by Alan Donahue. Dorothy Milne, director of this production and Artistic Director at Lifeline, delivers a show that ultimately delights the heart.
Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle is for the feminist who used to love the tawdry romance novels of the 18th and 19th century, but can’t stand the gender politics as they translate to present day. Originally published by Georgette Heyer in 1957, it has been wittily adapted for the stage by Christina Calvit (whose Pride and Prejudice adaptation staged at Lifeline was met with critical acclaim). Leading lady Phoebe Marlow is a clumsily honest but endearing young woman of noble breeding, played by a charming Samantha Newcomb. Newcomb is relatively new to the scene, having just received her BFA from DePaul, but I believe we can expect great things from this young actor.
Phoebe is an aspiring author who has been living with her father Lord Marlow (Sean Sinitski, who plays several amusing parts in the play), and Lady Marlow, played by Katie McLean Hainsworth. Lady Marlow announces to Samantha that Sylvester, the infamously rich Duke of Salford would be coming to propose to her. Phoebe can think of no worse proposition, after all, she has some choice thoughts about both marriage and the Duke, opinions she is not remotely bashful about sharing. She takes off with her best friend Thomas Orde, bouncing along on big brown exercise balls, a comical substitute for horses.
This versatile company of actors spins an exciting tale about the game of love, using flip cards to decide the players’ actions, and therefore the character’s choices throughout the play. Terry Bell gives a charming performance as Thomas Orde, giving the low status best friend of Phoebe a noble sensibility as they adventure together. The Duke of Salford played by a stoic yet subtly comical and charming Andrés Enriquez and his privileged sister Lady Ianthe (Kristina Loy), portrayed with a physical affectation reminiscent of fainting ladies with handkerchiefs, could not be more different. The Duke loves his ward, Lady Ianthe’s child, who she could not care less about but wants to keep her son in her household for the sake of image. Instead of hiring a child to play the petulant young man, a hat is jammed on various ensemble members who are hilariously frustrated by having to play the kid in the scene. Katie McLean Hainsworth has a variety of roles she inhabits effortlessly in the show (Lady Marlow, Georgiana Newbury, The Dowager Duchess of Salford, and Ensemble), but deserves special mention for playing the little boy. When the hat was forced on her head, she heaved a great sigh, glided down the slide and dropped to her knees, then looked at the audience and adopted the child’s cranky expression.
Movement is a big part of this production, enhanced by choreography by Ligia Sandoval. There are several dance sequences at formal balls throughout the play, and Sandoval forgoes period dance for contemporary moves with the cadence of those older dances. Characters body roll and spin in partner dances to hip hop beats under classical music, provided by Curtis Edwin Powell (Original Music & Sound Designer). The dance and the music help to contextualize the world of the play as both of its time and relevant to now. Eric Watkins’ lighting design is bold, colorful and unique, with a lot of tight travelling spotlights that must be quite difficult to operate with such accuracy.
The women are at the center of this drama, playing an unusually key role for such a period piece in orchestrating the affairs of the Duke and Phoebe. Kate Hildreth plays a cunning and sweet Lady Ingham, who has her granddaughter’s best interests at heart. The Duchess of Salford, Sylvester’s mother, is the most powerful and high status person in the play.
At times the play is slow moving, but the presence of the ensemble watching the play along with us gives plenty for the audience to look at if their attention wanders. Rachel Sypniewski’s costume design can be most appreciated at such times, the ensemble wears leggings and tops in solid colors with matching Converse sneakers, and put on different layers when they inhabit different worlds. At the balls for example, all of the women don butterfly cardigans, and in London the fashion is a cropped jacket with rich materials. Overall, Lifeline really made the most of their resources with this show, and I had a delightful time getting lost in a romantic story. Their love is strenuously tested and ultimately, well-earned, prompting the audience contemplate the ways their own games might be getting in the way of their happiness.
Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle runs through October 29th, 2017
Photos by Suzanne Plunkett
Director: Dorothy Milne
Adaptor: Christina Calvit
Stage Manager: Kyle Bricker
Asst. Stage Manager: Kyle Mundil Dye
Scenic & Properties Designer: Alan Donahue
Dialect Coach: Carrie Hardin
Original Music and Sound Designer: Curtis Edwin Powell
Choregrapher: Ligia Sandoval
Costume Designer: Rachel Sypniewski
Lighting Designer: Eric Watkins
Thomas Orde & Ensemble: Terry Bell
Sylvester Rayne, Duke of Salford: Andrés Enriquez
Lady Ingham, Mrs. Orde & Ensemble: Kate Hildreth
Lady Ianthe Rayne, Alice & Ensemble: Kristina Loy
Katie McLean Hainsworth: Lady Marlow, Georgiana Newbury, The Dowager Duchess of Salford & Ensemble
Samantha Newcomb: Phoebe Marlow
Wesley Scott: Mr. Otley, Keighley, Sir Nugent Fotherby & Ensemble
Sean Sinistki: Mr. Newsome, Lord Marlow, Mr. Shap, Pett & Ensemble