Review: Cousins everywhere, and where does mysterious ‘Rachel’ fit in?
Days after watching the Good Company Players production of “My Cousin Rachel” at the 2nd Space Theatre, I’m still not sure what to think of the character of Philip, the rich and headstrong young Englishman at the center of the plot. Is he:
Pictured above: Anthony teNyenhuis and Brooke Aiello in ‘My Cousin Rachel.’ Photo: Good Company Players
• A shallow, vain young man smitten with an older, beguiling woman?
• A virtuous but far too trusting romantic in over his head with a tempting femme fatale?
• A fabulously astute, shrewdly calculating genius — the 12-dimensional chess player of the 19th century Gothic romance world — who knows exactly what he’s doing every step of the way, even when the audience thinks he’s merely a dolt?
• A dolt?
It says something meaningful about Diana Morgan’s play (based on the famed writer Daphne du Maurier’s novel, of “Rebecca” fame) and Heather Parish’s inspired direction that of the four categories above, not one of them is on completely solid ground for me. This production will have you teetering between absolute certainty and befuddled ambiguity. It certainly makes for a good conversation piece for the drive home.
The orphaned Philip Ashley, heir to a sizable estate, is played by a hard-to-pin-down Anthony teNyenhuis in an intriguing performance. At the beginning of the play, set in 1847, he has returned from a trip to Florence, where he discovered the death of his beloved cousin Ambrose, who had been like a father to him. Ambrose had written to him asking for help and saying he was being mistreated by his new wife, Rachel, who also happens to his cousin — and, likewise, Philip’s cousin as well. (More on that in a moment.)
Philip is convinced that Rachel killed Ambrose. But when Rachel herself (played with haughty grandeur and a chilling, enigmatic gravitas by Brooke Aiello) shows up in England, an odd thing happens: The younger man starts to fall under her sway. Could two cousins in the same family fall for a third?
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About the cousin thing: It’s weird, yes, especially how Philip has a tendency not just to refer to his house guest as “Rachel” but as “my cousin Rachel,” as if the very fact of a few shared strands of DNA somehow adds to her mystique. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard “cousin” repeated so many times, to the point that the word itself starts to sound strange. (Just say it four times fast: “Cousin, cousin, cousin, cousin …” But I tried to keep an open mind, this being 1847 and all, and English, to top it off.
Anyway. The result is a genteel yet off-kilter maybe-murder-mystery that can feel a little on the long side but manages to keep your interest threaded throughout. A fine supporting cast (Noel Adams as a harumphing godfather, Emily Kearns as his bouncy daughter, Thomas Nance as a put-upon butler) add a nice texture to the proceedings. (I enjoyed Kelly Ventura as a rakish drop-in houseguest, but his Italian affectations were too broad at the Sunday matinee performance I attended.) David Pierce’s set is solid and sumptuous, as are Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s costumes, and the lighting design (by Joielle Adams and Andrea Henrickson) capture a nice sense of incipient menace.
While the storyline can sometimes seem a little ripe (kissing cousins, anyone?), the high point is Aiello’s performance. She can manage to come across as toxic and sanguine at the same time. Her Rachel flits almost maddeningly between easy and hard to pin down, and Aiello seems to relish the ambiguity. Whatever your interpretation of the ending of the play and the “real” character of the much put-upon Philip, you’ll for sure walk away with this truism: It’s probably not a good idea to marry your cousin. And if you do, make sure the will is signed.