After crash-landing onto the set, a family home, in George Bernard Shaw's "Misalli-ance"--just opened at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre Company--co-pilot Lina Szczepanowska (Elizabeth Marvel) says absolutely nothing. It's pure defiance. Hands on hips, bust thrust forward, and unabashedly unapologetic--this is an early 20th-century feminist--she just watches. Her face is a blank comic mask, hinting at Buster Keaton.
Indeed, Marvel admits Keaton played a role in shaping her interpretation of Lina, a circus acrobat, sexually anarchistic and dogmatic, all conveyed in a satiric mode: "It's the dead-pan way Keaton sees everything!" But then images of Bella Abzug and Marlene Dietrich also contributed something. "I see Lina as a cross between the two of them," Marvel says. "In fact, I studied Dietrich movies in preparation for this part. I also studied Greta Garbo movies to capture Lina's sexuality. Whenever I approach any character I try to find examples to draw upon."
The 27-year-old Fullerton, Calif., native, with whom we meet in the Roundabout cafe before a performance, has had no shortage of opportunity to practice her credo. Since graduating from Juilliard School four years ago, she has worked steadily as an actress.
Tall, and speaking in a pleasant low voice, Marvel is patrician in style, yet suggests a streak of zaniness. She laughs readily--a husky sound--and some of her observations are provocative. Consider her unexpected comparison of feminist writer Naomi Wolf with Madonna, both of whom she admires, sort of. "It's their ability to create themselves and manipulate the media. What they're doing is alien to me and I don't especially like Madonna's music or Wolf's observation that 'eating disorders are to woman what Treblenka was to Jews.' But I do admire the outrageousness. As Quincy Quince [a self-serving abrasive TV reporter] in 'An American Daughter,' I spent a lot of time thinking about them!"
The Challenge of Lina
Versatility is Marvel's acting signature. Within the past year she has played an array of characters, five of them. Among these, in addition to Quincy Quince, there was the mousy German secretary haunted by her father's Nazi past, in Broadway's "Taking Sides." And last spring Marvel was memorable Off-Broadway as a totally unfunny frenetic punk stand-up comic in "Arts & Leisure," at Playwrights Horizons.
Lina presents her own set of challenges, mostly "containing a well of emotion until the final moments when she breaks into a Shavian aria," says Marvel. "There's also her intense physicality. And then, of course, the accent: Polish."
Marvel has shown a real flair for accents in past performances: delivering a German dialect in "Taking Sides" and a French flavor in New York Shakespeare Festival's production of "Henry V" last summer. Still, Polish was a particularly difficult cadence to capture, she stresses. "It's not Russian and it's not German and it's very easy to slip into those accents. Or do it altogether too thick. I worked with a coach. But I also went down to the Lower East Side to hang out in Polish restaurants to grasp the Polish sound."
And there are other acting challenges here. Centering on intergenerational family conflicts--turn-of-the-century dysfunctional--"Misalliance" is a talky play of ideas. There are comedy and keen observations about the nature of misalliances, personal and intellectual. Narrative drive is secondary. Here, every character is a spokesperson for a viewpoint or an embodiment of a social type. Lina is the New Woman, circa 1909.
"Addressing these issues is the director's job," asserts Marvel. "I don't think an actress should be thinking in these terms. In fact, as an actress you have to be very naive. I've been told I'm bright. But when I act I get incredibly stupid. I feel my intellect slowing down. I feel it happening physically. And that's not negative in acting!" Marvel adds, "There comes a point in any project where you have to say--whether you like or understand the character, or the whole play for that matter--I believe!"
Still, Marvel admits she's ambivalent about this play: "I have some problems doing this show now and here. Because unless you're a wealthy, white upper-class British dilettante--in which case this play will confirm your ideas about family relations--it doesn't seem to have much relevance. On the other hand, it's important to keep Shaw and his language alive!"
Asked if she'd turn down an acting gig if it wasn't to her liking--politically or culturally--and had no redeeming artistic value, she responds: "I want to sell out. I want to do TV and movies. Yet, I have turned down some TV gigs because the scripts were impossible, politically and/or just plain bad in every other way!"
Education of an Introvert
Brought up in Berks County, Pa., the daughter of a business executive in metals, Marvel recalls that her early ambition was to be a sculptor. She made the transition to acting almost as a therapeutic response to a "tough teenage period of depression. I was spending far too much time alone in the studio. So I moved to acting to be more extroverted."
Following a year abroad, she auditioned for Juilliard and got in--a fortuitous move, opening the door for virtually everything else that has transpired.
"Juilliard is not for everyone. I was lucky. I had never acted professionally and knew next to nothing. I was a blank page, willing to try anything. Others in the class who had professional experience or had studied elsewhere or had strong ideas about anything--well, Juilliard set out to break them of all that. I arrived with an artistic nature, but no opinions or bad acting habits. I had no habits."
Whatever Marvel was doing--or not doing--it worked. By her third year in Juilliard she landed an agent, "who is now with William Morris and has been instrumental in helping me get roles." And upon graduation, the department head, director Michael Langham (National Actors Theatre's "St Joan," and "Timon of Athens"), "my mentor, gave me my first professional job. He cast me as Isabella in his production of 'Measure for Measure' at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He then cast me as Mary Ann Plunkett's understudy in [the title role of] 'St. Joan.' That in turn led to my taking over for Plunkett [as Nina] in the second half of 'The Seagull' 's run, also at NAT."
There are many roles Marvel would love to tackle, including the title role in "Hamlet." "I have no problem with cross-gender casting. I love playing men. I believe I can bring my own unique interpretation to a man's role. I'm not saying I can shed any new light on a male character because I'm a woman, but because I'm me, although clearly that includes the fact that I'm a woman."
For the next few months, however, Marvel's attentions will be focused on Lina and the responses she hopes to arouse. At every performance, she says, following her proclamation of what the modern woman should be ["skillful, independent, unbought"], there's a round of applause. "But the most intense, rousing responses are from the matinee audiences, mostly older women, known as the 'blue-haired ladies'. What's striking is how receptive matinee audiences are, generally. They listen! And most interesting, this material is obviously talking to them on some real level."
"There comes a point in any project where you have to say--
whether you like or understand the character--I