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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Murder and So Much More

From the Theater Vault Dept., Part Two: . . . And here’s my review of the other world premiere, Sidney Michaels’s Possession, commissioned by the City of Albany to celebrate its tricentennial – with a gothic piece based on the true story of the Cherry Hill murder. The piece is followed by an interview with Michaels that ran in the previous week’s issue.


“A GIRL WITH long blonde hair can never get anyone to take her seriously!” Elsie Lansing Whipple declares with a petulant stamp of her foot in Sidney Michaels’ new play Possession. That hair certainly makes her a cynosure: it falls to her ankles and sweeps around her like an elegant gown.

In an ironic twist on the Faustian gothic sensibility that informed the literature so popular in Elsie’s day, Michaels presents us with a female Faust, an enchantress so thoroughly evil that it takes the devil himself to destroy her.

Never mind the history behind this tale: it’s there, we’re familiar with it, it’s rendered accurately, but it’s ultimately unimportant. This is a 20th-century salute to literary and dramatic tradition, but with an up-to-date smile. When the devil finally does arrive, he gets a laugh.

The story, suppressed for many years, is a good yarn, particularly as it involves a scandal in an upper-class household and an affair between an upper-class lady and her lower-class servant, the solid stuff of the gothics. The servant, Jesse Strang, was hanged: Elsie went free.

Two images dominate the play: various notions of possession, particularly as it applies to human autonomy, and clockwork as a metaphor for the destiny of which an autonomous man seeks to wrest control.

A pastel primitive of the house on the hill is painted on the ornate scrim, flanked with stationary borders of simple foliage. Outdoor scenes are played before the scrim; it is raised for scenes in the house. Stuart Wurtzel designed a mechanism whereby a kitchen floor rolls out and fills the stage for much of the action; it withdraws to accommodate scrim and ancillary roll-ons, like the well where the lovers meet and the shed from which Strang fires the fatal shot.

So much contrivance surely tempted the fates, however, who responded by mistiming the passage of kitchen and scrim to knock some furnishings awry. It should give all concerned a clue to the major flaw in the production: the set is too busy, giving us rain and snow and a complex house when the focus should be on the characters. Most theaters probably would tell the playwright to take it easy on set requests: ESIPA seems to have the bucks to oblige, and there’s a danger of getting soft when you don’t have to reach too far.

Catherine Cooper and
Kevin O'Rourke
The feel of melodrama is reinforced by the easy-to-follow characterizations of good and evil: add to that a grisly murder and Satanic retribution and you’re almost ready to hear a temperance song as part of the show. Composer Dennis Buck’s complicated, original score announces the characters with stylish motifs and even gives us a melodramatic accompaniment to the murder preparations, convincingly played on a piano by Elsie’s Aunt Caty (Tanny McDonald).

Catherine Cooper has a field day with the part of Elsie. She is more than just attractive: she has a little-girl’s impetuousness and an adolescent’s flirtatiousness, charming at first, tiresome when its artifice is revealed.

Strang is not prepared for the handful he gets in Elsie. Played by handsome Kevin O’Rourke, we see panic enter his eyes early on, a panic appeased when his lust is satisfied and renewed as Elsie goes on to reveal her scheme.

The rest of the family at Cherry Hill is a proper bunch, but written with just enough individuality to keep them from seeming cardboard. The parts verge on archetype, but Joseph Larrabee-Quandt’s lawyer, a character drawn from the real-life story and actually named Calvin Pepper, isn’t always the weasel of cliché. David Combs plays the doomed husband as a pleasant paterfamilias who doesn’t deserve his fate, and Louise Stubbs shrewdly gives her portrayal of Dinah Jackson, a slave, too many sharp edges to let it fall into an Aunt Jemima role.

It is Dinah who sums up Elsie, who by the end of the play has lost all self-control and become part of Destiny’s clockwork: “Brandy winds you up, that [opium] pipe wind you down—and you think you’re free!”

Michaels has given Albany much more than a birthday present, more than a slice of history: his play is a tribute to the theatrical and literary tradition of this region. ESIPA has shaped a superior production, one with more meat and more fun than all of the rest of the silly Tricentennial stuff put together.

Directed by John Going
ESIPA at the Egg, Albany

Metroland Magazine, Oct. 23, 1986

“JESSE STRANG WAS HANGED IN 1827 on the spot where the Egg now stands,” says playwright Sidney Michaels. “We’re going to hang him 16 more times at the same location. I hope his ghost doesn’t take it too badly.”

Strang deserted a wife and kid in 1825 to take up residence as a handyman at Cherry Hill, where he fell under the spell of beautiful, wealthy Elsie Lansing Whipple, a Van Rensselaer heir. She persuaded him to join her in the murder of her husband.

Sidney Michaels
“She was one of the richest girls in the U.S. at the time,” the playwright explains, “and very likely the prettiest. She had long blonde hair down to her ankles, and unlike the women of her time, she didn’t wear it pinned up. She was very flamboyant. Right now the actress playing that part is working full-time learning how to move that hair around.”

Michaels was approached by Lew Swyer on behalf of the city of Albany for a play celebrating the city’s Tricentennial: Swyer suggested the Cherry Hill murder as a topic. “My God,” Michaels exclaims. “I’ve never had a city approach me before! How do you turn down an invitation like that? They left the subject up to me. but I looked into the murder and liked it more and more.

“It was the most celebrated case of its time: everyone in the country knew about it. And, as Lew pointed out, it probably was the most exciting thing to happen here in those 300 years. But we did feel it was important to write it with a sense of humor—the goal was not to be offensive. And humor comes easily to this story because the murder was probably one of the most bungled, clumsiest attempts at homicide in the books. It took all of about 48 hours to catch the murderers.”

According to one account. Elsie began with arsenic, switching to a bullet when the poison took too long. Strang fired through a window and killed Whipple. and the lovers blamed it on “a stray bullet fired by a passing drunk” (from Jay Robert Nash’s book Bloodletters and Badmen). Somehow, Strang even managed to become a member of the coroner’s jury investigating the matter.

The house plays so important a part in Possession that the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts crew has rigged a cutaway reproduction. “It’s extraordinary-looking, like an enormous doll house,” says Michaels. “There are nine playing spaces that get used.”

He chose the title with the feeling that the title was just waiting to be chosen. “The idea of possession comes in in so many ways. There is a family of great possessions at the center of the story, an early American family who possessed the land once possessed by Indians. There is also Elsie’s characteristic self-possession, and a struggle while she is being dispossessed. And the ending is another form of self-possession, but I won’t tell you about that.” He smiles. “We’ve cooked up something pretty surprising.”

Michaels fired two hits on Broadway with Tchin-Tchin, which starred Anthony Quinn, and Dylan, which brought Alec Guinness to the stage as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The playwright provided books for Applause and Goodtime Charlie and book and lyrics for Ben Franklin in Paris. He started out as a poet who dreamed of being an actor – who also had written a play.

“So one day I walked into (producer) Kermit Bloomgarden’s office,” he recalls. “looking to audition. And the receptionist said, ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not auditioning actors today.’ I guess I must have stood there, crestfallen, for a moment, for she looked at me again and saw the script under my arm and said. ‘Unless you’re a playwright. Mr. Bloomgarden is always interested in seeing playwrights. Are you an actor?’

“Well, I thought about it for a moment, thought about the terrible life an actor leads, about the cruel treatment he gets in the theater. And I said, ‘No. I’m a playwright.’

“I spent about an hour in Bloomgarden’s office, and he looked at my script and gave me lots of helpful advice and really was very helpful to me. He was quite a gentleman, and an incredible professional.”

Since he’s taken residence at the Albany Hilton for a few weeks to work on the show, Michaels has become fascinated with the city and the Capital Region. “I love Albany. And I want to see it become the great city it can become—but theater is important to that, and it’s important that people support the theater. How did New York get to be the capital of the world? It has the theaters. Well, you’ve got top-notch theaters here, too. Culture and the arts make the city—they provide the expression of the quality of life. And the first thing you can do is come to the Egg to see Possession.”

Metroland Magazine, Oct. 16, 1986

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