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Theater Review:

Eclipse Theatre Company’s "CHILDE BYRON" at Athenaeum Theatre


Playwright Romulus Linney no doubt took his cue from well-worn academic distinctions between the impassioned Romantic movement and a logic-constrained Age of Enlightenment when he decided to write "Childe Byron." In it, he examines the life of quintessential English Romantic poet, Lord Byron, through the exacting prism of Byron’s mathematician daughter, Ada.

The premise is a fairly conventional one, and Linney blandly concludes what William Blake so boldly claimed as his mantra: to avoid reconciling contraries. Linney, therefore, promotes the need for the co-existence of libido and logic in order to reach basic human truths.

The playwright, however, opts to take a pretentious, limited and long-winded route to reach this conclusion. But thanks to the integrity and tenacity of Eclipse Theatre Company -- presenting "Childe Byron" at the Athenaeum Theatre as the second play in its Linney-themed season – this unadventurous drama (with sly comedic touches) carries some intriguing weight. Director Steve Scott takes this script out of the moth balls and infuses it with a stinging vibrancy. As strange as it may sound, his cast succeeds at illuminating the troubled man behind the myth more than Linney.

And that’s no small feat, considering the play opens with a cancer-stricken Ada summoning her father, Lord Byron, from the grave in the midst of a laudanum-induced hallucination. She wants to reach closure with the man who left her to be raised by her mathematician mother. What follows is a sparring match – in which father and daughter bicker over Byron’s multitudinous sex scandals – and a museum-like reenactment of those scandals.

Audiences are constantly reminded of Ada’s moral rectitude and Byron’s obsessive search for love and acceptance through his omni-sexual adventures. Linney seems to blame the author of "Manfred’s" life-long self-loathing disguised as narcissism on the fact that he was born with club feet and existed in a "genteel squalor" among England’s established elite.

The playwright vacillates between writing a stylized biography that calls for pity and tolerance and a sensationalistic tell-all account of a man who slept with men, women, young boys, young girls, his own sister and animals (the latter part of this overblown myth explored by Linney in slightly sarcastic terms). Grounding the play is Ada’s immovable fortitude, but her character is written cartoonishly until the end when heart (Byron) and head (Ada) embrace and Ada agrees to join her logical tendencies with the unbridled spirit of her father in death (the prime Romantic conceit).

Jenny McKnight is a sublime actress with a capacity for revealing a range of conflicting emotions in a gently crafted breath. She takes Ada out of frigid, moralistic prude mode and endows her with as much desire and curiosity as Byron. Anish Jethmalani has landed one of the most intricate and potent roles of his career. His Byron is unsympathetic and defiant – but never a melodramatic cad. He can deliver an overwrought line, like "Poetry is the lava of my imagination," and make it sound heartfelt, not deliriously false.

They are backed by a "chorus" of actors, most of whom transcend Linney’s stilted structure. Jason Sawyer, CeCe Klinger, Tiffany Scott and James Eldrenkamp move smoothly between ardent admirers and social hypocrites. Chris Corwin’s baronial set and Nat Swift’s gloomy lighting set the perfect Romantic tone.

But Linney’s play, while attempting to slice to the core of Byron’s extreme behavior, ends up furthering the familiar cliches of his myth – from swords and pistols to the poet’s infamous skull chalice.•

Eclipse Theatre Company’s production of "Childe Byron" runs through September 9 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $12-$15. Call 312-559-1212.

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