My Dear Miss Chancellor is the story of a young girl debuting in London, and her exploration of a secret underworld of female sexual empowerment in Victorian England.
Annex Theatre’s production of My Dear Chancellor might be considered a curiosity, in some circles. But this is Capitol Hill, after all, a hotbed of queer culture; a place where love is celebrated and sexuality is a more fluid thing. It’s a place where women have more agency than they have had, perhaps, at any other time in history. Much of the action in the show is less surprising simply because of this cultural background. However, this is sharply contrasted with the setting of the show, a time and a place where there were certain societal expectations of a woman, specifically concerning their interactions with men. It is then entertaining when the actions of ladies’ within the context of this setting directly subverts these expectations.
Director Elizabeth Hershly deftly works with what she has. She and her crew have made a dynamic stage, featuring several mobile set elements which create a few convincingly differentiated zones for the action to take place. Samantha Armitage’s costumes are the aesthetic high point of the show. Fancy gowns fall away to high-bosomed corsets and pantaloons when the ladies fight or make love, giving the already scandalous action a peculiar sense of voyeurism.
The show begins with a party, a celebration of the young debutante Janet Chancellor’s arrival to London society. Janet, played with a giddy sort of energy by Sophia Franzella, is a country girl excited by the potential of life in the big city, if a little intimidated. Shortly after, we are also introduced to Hazel McGovern, portrayed by Tracy Leigh. The two become entranced by one another, and soon a romance blossoms between them. Hazel then introduces Janet to a secret society of lady fencers, a place where they can socialize, drink beer, and practice fighting skills away from the prying eyes of society.
When Hazel’s original “sweetheart” Constance Shepard learns of the new romance between the lovers she becomes a tempest of anger, turning a series of friendly introductory fencing bouts into a life and death battle for Janet. Thus begins the main conflict of the story. Jasmine Joshua brings a suitable flush of heartbroken rage to the hot-headed Constance, who, after feigning dire injury by Janet’s blade, schemes to turn the other ladies against her.
There are a few other standouts in the cast. Hazel’s maid Mary Ann, played by Hannah Schnabel, serves as an impromptu narrator. The actress puts on an effective, broad, northern England accent. It is probably the most impressive accent of any of the players, who all do their best to emulate the various voices of English society. Matthew Middleton plays the beleaguered host to the ladies’ fencing club, Simon Gray. Though he is mostly pleasant, there is a moment where he voices doubts about the long term feasibility of the club, and is quickly cowed by the women and their blades. This seems to be a common thread throughout the show, actually.
The excitement and the drama are tempered somewhat by what this reviewer would call “dissonance.” The few men in attendance are, for the most part, inoffensive and weak. It is certainly one thing to display female empowerment, but that is cheapened somewhat when they don’t have willful men to contend with, as real women likely did at that time. Later in the show Janet behaves as is expected by society, but it isn’t because the men force her to. She simply bends to their fickle whims. Thier disregard for her personal desires is only the result of ignorance. The script seems to indicate that Hazel is only nine years or so Janet’s senior, though actress Leigh is considerably older. Not keeping that in mind can make the romance more awkward than intended. After all, a 17 year old falling in love with a 26 year old would be more believable. Also, the danger of any one lady’s station being ruined by her association with the fencers or her sexual proclivity isn’t ever realized in the action of the show; rather, it’s only hinted at. This lessens that tension. These are easily forgiven wrinkles in a fantastic production, though.
Leaving the theater, this critic was seized by the feeling that the show wasn’t really for him, but perhaps that very feeling was the reason he should have come. After all, new perspectives and experiences, even ones that make us uncomfortable, are important. This show is recommended for anyone who is ready or eager to see what female liberation can mean for the individual.
My Dear Miss Chancellor by Caitlin Gilman, directed by Elizabeth Hershley. The Annex Theatre, 1100 E Pike St, Seattle, WA 98122. October 23–November 14, Thurs–Sat at 7:30 pm. Tickets and more info: annextheatre.org or (206) 728-0933. Senior and student discounts.