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Dark hearts
The Heiress
Through Aug. 22 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.

Mad Cow's Jennifer Christa Palmer and Mark Edward Smith are at it again. Two years ago, the actors paired off as daughter and dad in N. Richard Nash's tender romantic comedy The Rainmaker. This summer, the two meet onstage once more as daughter and dad in Ruth and Augustus Goetz's domestic drama The Heiress, based on Henry James' novella Washington Square.

This time around, the duo's theatrical dynamic is decidedly different. Because even as both of the daughters Palmer portrayed in the different shows share a common persona of shy awkwardness hiding deep wells of feeling, Smith's fathers couldn't be farther apart. In The Rainmaker H.C. Currie loved and supported his girl, finding beauty when she felt plain and offering hope in place of her despair. In The Heiress Dr. Austin Sloper can only see the flaws in his offspring Catherine, withholding love and starving his child of the affection she needs
and deserves.

So when Morris Townsend, a handsome but relatively impoverished suitor (Steven Lane) calls on the timid young woman, showering her with fondness and asking for her hand in marriage, Catherine is rapturous. Dr. Sloper, however, can only conclude that the man is after his daughter's inheritance; after all, the play is set in the 1850s, when a woman's true worth to society was measured by her marital potential and the honor it could bring to the family. Since the paterfamilias sees no redeeming qualities in the girl — and he knows her quite well — how could anyone else? The resultant clash of wills among these three protagonists powers the earnest and heartfelt drama forward to its less than happy conclusion.

The Heiress was well-received when it opened on Broadway in 1947, but the work made its critical impact when film director William Wyler transferred it to the big screen in 1949. The universally acclaimed movie garnered a slew of honors and awards including an Academy Award nomination for Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper and the Oscar for Olivia de Havilland's interpretation of Catherine.

Director Michael Marinaccio has handled the current production of the drama with aplomb, telling the story without an overload of artifice. My only cavil is that the main players need to dig a little deeper to find ever more subtle shadings in their respective roles. Perhaps opening-night jitters caused Palmer and Smith to push the acting a little too hard, but the play works best when its bleak themes of love and betrayal are communicated with underplayed nuance. The audience needs to feel more connected to the characters' forlorn and conflicted inner lives to appreciate the complex heartaches.

— Al Krulick

Swedberg's steampunk opera
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday,
July 30-31
Black Box Theatre, Valencia Community
College East Campus
701 N. Econlockhatchee Trail

Robert Swedberg, the former director of Orlando Opera, still weaves his magic in this town. Even though Swedberg is now with the University of Michigan, Orlando is his home, and he's teaching opera and music theater at Valencia Community College for the second summer, along with another course in yoga for performers. Coming up this weekend is the culmination of his eight-week workshop with students: two performances of Olympia, abridged and adapted from The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach.

"It's a piece that will interest everyone, I think," says Swedberg, and he doesn't mean that it's only 45 minutes long. "It is high fantasy in a bizarre world … it's
kind of sick."

Title character Olympia, a robot created by a team of mad scientists casts her spell over Hoffmann, who falls hard for her while wearing the magic glasses that keep him from seeing her for what she really is. Keep in mind the original opera was written in the late 19th century, long before Disney's Audio-Animatronics. Swedberg's inexperienced but eager crew — some of them also students in his yoga class — has collaboratively taken it to a freakier level. "When we got together with the design team, we decided it should have more edge to it," Swedberg says.

One student's interest and familiarity with the aesthetics of steampunk (a spin-off of 1980s science fiction and cyberpunk that's become its own subculture) provided the inspiration. Swedberg says it meant taking Olympia's "Victorian-style and adding weird goggles and rivets and lots of metallic stuff for kind of a punked-out feel to it. It makes these dolls look a lot more interesting."

The lyrics are sung in English, except for a doll song that the group felt sounded more odd when left in its original French. And Swedberg added a can-can, because he could, which is danced to a composition Offenbach created for another work, the Gaité Parisienne ballet. There's a behind-the-scenes segment added to each show, for a look at how Olympia came together.

"I think everyone is going to be moved by it," Swedberg concludes. "The longtime opera person will be enchanted with this version, and who can't be excited by young performers who are singing their hearts out."

— Lindy T. Shepherd

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