Jason is a producer, manager, and designer with 17 years of experience in Chicago, New York, and in the touring market. In 2015, he founded Lotus Theatricals – the publisher of Performink, and an independent commercial producing company – with Abigail Trabue.
Kraig Kelsey and Kat Evans in LONDON ASSURANCE. Photo by Ally Neutze.
By Jason Epperson
It is quite an oddity that the 1841 British comedy LONDON ASSURANCE has not — at least to City Lit Theater’s knowledge — been produced on a Chicago stage in 120 years. It’s a popular piece across the pond and has had numerous Broadway productions – as recently as 1997. Famous actors such as Judi Dench, Roger Rees, and Rainn Wilson have all had their turns in the Victorian comedy by Dion Boucicault, which is much in line with many of the other comedies of the era, and in a broader context, much in line with pretty much all of early 19th-century drama. A time before rolling all exposition naturally into dialogue had become commonplace. A time when unnecessary characters were plentiful. A time when the “aside” was relied upon heavily to let us know what a character was thinking.
Such plays can be awkward for the modern performer and audience alike to feel at ease with, but watching City Lit’s production, you might feel as though you are sitting in a small British theater in the 1840s — and that you belong there. I don’t exactly know how to describe the feeling better than that. The cast handles the awkward balance of farce and comedy of manners (and all of those asides) so well that it feels simply natural, but not of today. Terry McCabe’s production makes no attempt at anything to freshen this piece up, and it’s all the better for it.
The plot revolves around the foppish Sir Harcourt Courtly, a 57-year-old fashionisto in denial of his growing years, played here by Kingsley Day. The bad jet-black dye job and rouge says nearly everything you need to know about this widower, who is betrothed to Grace Harkaway, an 18-year-old he has never met. Farcical events are set into motion, seeing Courtly’s son Charles fall in love with his mother-to-be, with all the fun of witty servants, mistaken identity, and spunky dinner guests along the way.
Standouts include Kraig Kelsey, who is a lot of fun as both Charles Courtly and an alter ego he has to make up on the fly, and yet a third persona as the much duller version of his original self. His wits are matched nicely against Kat Evans, who plays the wise beyond her years Harkaway. The duo of Cameron Feagin and David Fink as Lady Gay Spanker and Dolly Spanker are nothing short of hysterical. Feagin is especially gripping to watch.
The production design is modest, but it fits. There are a few characters who have little or nothing to do, and the dialogue, though handled with aplomb by this cast, is clunky at times. You won’t find Donald Trump, Syrian refugees, or racial tension in LONDON ASSURANCE, but it’s easy to see where the populist appeal this play has enjoyed for almost 200 years comes from.
What really knocked my socks off, though, was the unabashed feminism of the piece. Here, it is the old man that is insecure about his looks and age and clothing. Here, it is an 18-year-old woman who lives her life in total autonomy, with vehement defiance towards anyone who challenges it, and she is loved all the more for it. Lady Gay Spanker is a character that seems so unlikely to have been written in the 1840s, but there she is, fiesty and in total control of her husband, her self, her sexuality, her guns, her liquor.
And yet, there isn’t an overt lesson in its feminism, which makes it feel all the more fresh and exciting. Neither is the female characters’ independence used as a pawn or a joke — it’s never seriously challenged. I left the theater with a smile on my face, letting the cares of life disappear for a couple hours, contemplating how a piece like this could be written in 1841. Born in that awkward century and a half between Shakespeare and the flurry of iconic playwrights of the late 19th century, the intelligent women of LONDON ASSURANCE shame much of the Western drama that follows.
LONDON ASSURANCE runs through July 23 at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue.