Encore Michigan

Premiere: ‘Capital’ good time at Detroit Rep

Review March 25, 2017 Martin F. Kohn

DETROIT, Mich.–Set in London in 1858, James Armstrong’s comedy Capital mixes political philosophy with the story of a poor girl’s longing for a silk bonnet. One would be tempted to call it Karl Marx meets Charles Dickens if it weren’t for the fact that in the second act, Karl Marx actually meets Charles Dickens.

And, yes, it’s a comedy; if not the first chase-around-the-living-room, hide-behind-the-hedges farce about economics, political philosophy and a serious moral dilemma, Capital is surely among the few.

Director Leah Smith emphasizes the fun in this world premiere production at Detroit Repertory Theatre.

Capital begins with Karl Marx (Harry Wetzel) in a heated exchange of ideas with his teenage daughter, Jenny (Lulu Dahl). Jenny desperately wants a silk bonnet because all the other girls have one. Away with such frivolity, Karl counters, the only thing of value is labor. Anyway, he can barely afford food and shelter; besides speaking for the proletariat, he is among their ranks, making a meager living as a journalist while working on his books.

Through a chance meeting with a stranger (Ben Will), the Marxes accidentally obtain a letter from Charles Dickens confessing to an affair with an actress, Nelly Ternan (Sara Catheryn Wolf). Marx could end his money woes by selling the letter to a scandal-hungry newspaper, but that would go against everything he believes in.

Karl wants to return the letter, Jenny wants to sell it (and get her bonnet), Nelly Ternan shows up to snag the letter for herself, and the chase is on, literally and figuratively.

The Rep’s compact stage doesn’t lend itself to run-around comedy but the cast manages pretty well and some moments are especially choice: Wolf’s wrestling the bottom of her ornate and oversized dress through the Marxes’ narrow doorway; she and Will having to wipe their faces after pronouncing the title of a play with a lot of P’s in it.

To add to the merriment, Smith has her actors play it broadly, as if they were in a 19th century melodrama, all except for Wetzel’s understated Karl Marx, a needed baseline from which the others can go over the top.

Armstrong’s best creation is Jenny, a combination of teenage petulance and intellectual acuity (she is her father’s daughter) captured nicely by Dahl. As the actress Nelly Ternan, Wolf, already over-acting as required, must find a second gear of over-acting (harder than it looks) when her character shows off.

Ben Will plays a variety of characters, from an archetypal “You must pay the rent” landlord to Mr. Dickens himself, making each distinctive. Armstrong’s ending comes as a surprise and there’s a postscript/curtain call song-and-dance that, while it may be authentic to the period, seems jarringly out of place.

Mary Copenhagen creates a striking variety of costumes, from the aforementioned recalcitrant dress to Marx’s somber and shabby suit to a London bobby’s uniform. Doing double duty, Wetzel has designed Marx’s convincingly rundown living quarters and a city park where significant action occurs. Thomas Schrader’s lighting never gets in the way, and sound designer Burr Huntington provides a well-curated collection of songs about money.

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Week of 6/17/2024

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