A true love triangle
The Countess examines marriage and sanity
By Heidi Masek email@example.com
A respected art critic in Victorian London was likable in public, but in private emotionally tortured his popular, beautiful wife. John Ruskin invited his protégé, painter John Everette Millais, on a four-month retreat to Scotland in 1853 to paint Ruskin’s portrait, and a bond formed between Millais and Effie Gray Ruskin.
“He was trying to convince his wife she was mad so he could control her and put her in an institution ... that dichotomy is fascinating to look at from a psychological standpoint,” said Suzanne Delle, artistic director of Yellow Taxi Productions.
When Delle founded Yellow Taxi in 2002, The Countess, based on the Ruskin story, was one of the first plays scheduled. However, when the American Stage Festival closed, “the idea of doing a period piece with props and costumes was overwhelming without their help,” Delle said.
“Our shows are usually modern New Yorkers hanging out on a fire escape” or another simple set, Delle said.
The Countess is the only play written by Gregory Murphy, and it had good reviews during a New York run in 1999-2000, which Delle saw. Murphy “sort of stumbled across the story and became fascinated by it,” Delle said. The play is compiled from letters and other research. Murphy married the British director of that show, and is now in England researching a play about Charles Dickens.
“It was written by a man but very much a women’s piece,” Delle said. Ellie Gray, facing manipulation from her husband and pressure to follow social mores, gets the courage to leave Ruskin during a time when divorce was not an option, Delle said.
It took until this year for Yellow Taxi to come back to The Countess. The Hunt building board asked Yellow Taxi to use the Hunt stage more. Staging The Countess there would mean the Hunt’s interior could serve as a Victorian-era set. When the Merrimack Repertory Theater costume and prop store flooded in May, the theater decided to toss everything. Yellow Taxi took the Victorian costumes, had them dry-cleaned and brought them to Bonnie Wilbar, costumer for the Granite State Opera, for salvaging. Wilbar’s son was a production manager for Yellow Taxi at the time. Also, director Josiah George works at the Boston Lyric Opera as a production manager, which has a prop store.
Delle cast herself as Effie, because you can do that if it’s your company, she said.
She originally acted in almost every Yellow Taxi performance, ending with Proof in 2004 when she shifted focus to building Yellow Taxi. Delle was worried that she’d be pulled in two directions while acting, but George and stage manager Leah Belanger have production details covered. “I know when I walk in the room, I can just be an actor,” Delle said.
George appeared as the elf in David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries with Yellow Taxi last winter. The professional arts organization uses small venues and has a small following but also has a “desire to grow,” George said, and he wanted to be a part of that.
George admits his colleagues say, “Oh, it’s one of those things” when they learn the artistic director cast herself as Effie. “But Suzanne is great ... she’s done very well allowing me to be able to stage the show how I see it staged,” George said. “But also as a director, I respect the work that the actors do. It’s important to me. I get their take on characters, their take on the script, and attempt to compromise as it were, to allow those things to come through,” he said.
George had the call about who to cast (other than Delle) for The Countess, she said. Doug Chilson of Boston is portraying John Ruskin and has done about six Yellow Taxi shows. Christian DeChellis as John Everett Millias and Dawn Tucker as Lady Elizabeth Eastlake were in staged readings for Yellow Taxi’s Susan McIntyre Play Festival in Derry. Barbara Bourgeois plays Mrs. Ruskin and David White plays John Ruskin; both are new to Yellow Taxi.
Yellow Taxi has been offering a panel discussion with their shows for a long time, but for this one Delle enlisted help from the NH Humanities Council. Rather than discussing acting or directing, participants in “Truth and Lies in Art: An Examination of the Real-Life Characters in The Countess” will address the history and psychology of the Ruskin story. Dr. Loretta Brady and Dr. Meg Cronin from Saint Anselm College and Inez E. McDermott from New England College will present at about 6 p.m., following the Oct. 21 matinée. Admission to the panel is free.
The Countess by Gregory Murphy
Thursday, Oct. 19, through Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 21, and Sunday, Oct. 22, at 4 p.m.
“Truth and Lies in Art: An Examination of the Real-Life Characters in The Countess” panel discussion follows Oct. 21 4 p.m. performance
Hunt Memorial Building, 6 Main Street, Nashua
Tickets $15 at theatermania.com or at the door.
Yellow Taxi Productions, yellowtaxiproductions.org.