The actors could stab you from the stage if they really wanted to, which makes the sword-fighting that much more intense.
The actors could stab you from the stage if they really wanted to. Joe Iano

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The Annex’s small stage can be the perfect venue for great theater. In My Dear Miss Chancellor, director Elizabeth Hershly and scenic designer Chris M. Roberson do the best they can to create space on the stage, but the 14-person play involving dueling lesbians and grand ballrooms demands a larger venue to bring out important tensions and possibilities that the small space buries.

The action's set in 1840, in the early years of the Victorian Era. Miss Janet Chancellor (Sophia Franzella), a 17-year-old Lady, arrives in London for her social debut. At her first big ball she meets and expresses interest in Miss Hazel McGovern (Tracy Leigh), an older woman with a silver tongue, a warm demeanor, and a wandering eye. The May-September pair carry on an illicit love affair, much to the chagrin of McGovern’s recently spurred former lover, Mrs. Constance Shepard (Jasmine Joshua) who spends the whole play scheming for revenge.

Verbal flirting and sparring in the halls of high society beget sword-flirting and sparring in an underground, beer-soaked, Sapphic women’s fencing club. Here, class distinctions between servants and Ladies dissolve, an idea reflected in Samantha Armitage’s superb costume design. To suggest both oneness and individuality, all the women wear these cool, white fighting dresses, the cuts of which bear some relation to the characters they clothe.

The majority of the play’s pleasures—for the audience, at least—occur in the fencing club. The sword fighting, choreographed by Stacey Bush, conveys sensuality, ferocity, intelligence, and charm depending on sword-wielder’s disposition. And these swords aren’t the flimsy rapiers you see the beekeeper-types wearing—the blades have girth, make real clank sounds, and seem to slice whole chunks out of the air.

The language of the play, provided by Caitlin Gilman, is tight, if only serviceably clever; par for the genre, but not exemplary. Gilman’s good with the language of British cordiality, but only half the lines avoid cliche. The other half sound like this one from the vengeful lover's co-scheming new lover, Charlotte Browning*: “There will be blood. Rest assured there will be blood.”

The use of this sort of language, the overdetermined Freudian (s)wordplay (“Shift your weight forward and push with the tip”), and the uneven slapstick choices made it hard to tell how much fun the play was trying to have with itself.

All that might be forgivable if Chancellor’s central conflict was more convincing. Chancellor wants to keep her title (which involves marrying Mr. Hubert Wendell, played by Mike Gilson) and McGovern’s affection, but she can’t have both.

In order fully to buy Chancellor’s dilemma, though, you need to believe Chancellor truly lusts after the trappings of high society as powerfully as she loves McGovern. The rickety and crowded stage, the set's plain lavender columns, and the intimacy of the space in general make the gossip easier to catch, but the Chancellor's love/hate, dependent/independent relationship with upperclass society harder to feel.

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In a bigger space, the balls could be more opulent and the sword fighting more expressive. (Gilman could cut some language and time by letting the swords do the talking, too).

All that said, I’d never seen two women fight each other with swords before. Before watching this play, I knew close to nothing about the lives of British lesbians in the Victorian Era. But, because of this play, for the last few days I’ve been traveling down all kinds of great rabbit holes. Like the duel between Princess Pauline von Metternich and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg. They battled topless to avoid infection. (Blades could drive dirty cloth into a wound). Then there’s the so-called “petticoat duels” in France. My Dear pointed me outward, toward a rich history of Victorian Era lesbians like Mary Benson and the literary Ladies of Llangollen.

*In my original post I attributed this quote to Mrs. Constance Shepard, which was inaccurate. My apologies.

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