Halfway through A Proper Place, a posh English butler (Crichton, played by Kevin Vortmann) stands at center stage, shirt unbuttoned and billowing. “A man like me has basic needs; I want to steal her,” he sings in the song “Make Her Mine.” He is singing about Mary (played by Chelsea LeValley), the daughter of a wealthy English aristocrat with whom he has been stranded on an island. “I must cross the line,” he sings, referring both to class and relationship boundaries. His scheme, based in the belief that he “deserves her love,” is rooted in his sense of ownership over her.
In the program for A Proper Place, based on J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, the authors of the script write of their desire to question “whether what you are born into is really where you belong,” through a story that follows the relationship between two people who fall for each other across class lines. But through the thematic realities of a play that reinforces gendered hierarchies and domination, it fails to really provide a modern subversive narrative on class. Melodramatic acting styles additionally struggle to support the play.
Without a creative look at age-old issues that resurface in historical pieces like these (The Admirable Crichton was written at the turn of the century), unfortunate seeds of the past risk getting planted in the present. Successful contemporary restagings that responsibly deal with historical power relations often bring in added elements of creative critique. This can take many forms—a knowing satire of the original material, or the switching of the gender roles of characters, for instance. A Proper Place, however, falls short of doing the crucial work of critical appraisal.
Set in England in 1902, A Proper Place follows the story of an immensely wealthy aristocratic British family and their servants. Surrounded by silver and gold, the show opens with a look into the extravagant inner lives of the family, supported by rigid class barriers that the butler and the three aristocratic daughters work tirelessly to keep in place. “When everyone stays in their place, a house runs without disgrace,” the ensemble sings in the opening scene. Early on in the play, we discover that the family is planning on embarking on a voyage across the sea. En route, the family and servants are stranded on an island. Class dynamics complicate things, and lust emerges as the force that may finally cross the family’s imposed boundaries.
From the moment the characters land on the island, the narrative oozes with hierarchical masculinity. Ernest, the aristocratic cousin, struggles to take control of the group. “We must save the women,” he says as they arrive on the island. “We mustn’t let women be afraid; we must protect them.” The paternalism of his character is unfortunately paired with Randy Scholz’s stagnant and melodramatic acting. This power struggle continues between Crichton, Ernest and the aristocratic father. Crichton slides into a leadership role—perhaps a progressive move for a butler. But he also seizes that power by building himself up as a “true man” who can “save” everyone, furthering the paternalism of the narrative, not to mention his predatory behavior toward Mary.
In the synopsis in the program, the producers write that they hope to reveal how the worldviews of the characters are “challenged and changed.” This goal is thematically echoed through Crichton’s aim to “undo the walls” of society. As theater-makers and community members, we must ask which walls we wish to undo and be truly attentive to all the walls (systems, structures, et cetera) that are present in narratives in order to do so. If the goal is to challenge and change, stories such as A Proper Place are dangerous forces in the Seattle theater community. Masked under the supposed lightheartedness of comedic and musical entertainment, the narratives can instead uphold that which must be torn down: patriarchy, colonialism and beyond. It would be great to see the Village Theatre use its resources to move into a space of critical engagement, rather than uncritical restagings of century-old material. A Proper Place, Village Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah. villagetheatre.org. $25-$65. All ages. Ends April 23.