Strawdog Theatre Company. By Philip Dawkins. Directed by Megan Schuchman. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Aeneas Sagar Hemphill
“The personal is political.” This phrase became a rallying cry for the feminist movements of the '60s and '70s, but it applies no less today. The phrase is an acknowledgment of the lack of barrier between personal decisions and political ones. What you wear, the length of your hair, your vocation, what type of food you buy—all of these are political acts, statements about what norms you will subscribe to and which you will subvert or transgress against. Today, with our world so interconnected, our access to information—including personal information—nearly limitless, the link between an individual’s ideology and their personal decisions has only grown stronger and more apparent.
So what to think about Eleanor Marx (Dana Black), the Miss Marx at the center of Philip Dawkins’s latest, who, daughter to the famous (or infamous depending on your persuasion) Karl Marx and a tireless fighter for gender equality, finds herself unable to escape a relationship with the manipulative, abusive Aveling (John Ferrick). This is the tension at the heart of Miss Marx: not the familiar competition of Marxist and capitalist ideologies, not the clash of civilizations, but the tragedy of a revolutionary woman being undone by the very oppressive force she fought so tirelessly to eliminate. Is this irony a hypocrisy or the clearest illustration of the power of misogyny, that even someone who can see it can still succumb? Regardless of your answer, the play never forgets that these are the people behind these ideas, and invites you to engage with them as such.
A story like this would seem to make for quite the dirge, but Dawkins’s writing and Shuchman’s direction skillfully keep things balanced. Where most would go for grit or melodrama, Dawkins creates an enchantingly elevated world with a heart-tugging nostalgic sheen, punctuated by a streak of Marx Brothers humor. The design work—including the lighting by Strawdog company members Jordan Kardasz and Aaron Weissman—brings this world into vivid life, as does this capable cast. Black’s Eleanor avoids all the pitfalls of a role like this. She embraces Eleanor’s contradictions without sacrificing her dignity, making the increasing daylight between her ideals and her actions all the more painful to watch. Ferrick’s Aveling oscillates, at least in the beginning, between charming and repulsive, but the point at which this tips unquestionably into the latter is one of the most subtly grotesque and menacing moments this side of The Pitchfork Disney.
Special attention must be paid to Matt Holzfeind, whose Friedrich Engels nearly steals the show. A character like his could easily become caricature, but he turns his thick German accent and furry Groucho eyebrows into a presence that emits so much warmth that he leaves a hole in his absence. His eulogy for Marx, in a whimsical funeral scene underscored by Nim (Pamela Mae Davis) tinkering on the living room piano and a haphazard orchestra filling in from the wings, is one of the play’s most touching moments, and an encapsulation of its power: a tribute to the humanity of a person who is so often an idea.