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Antaeus revives 1908 feminist rom-com that strikes a relevant chord

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Victor Bretherton (John Bobek) courts Diana Massingberd (Abigail Marks) in the 1908 feminist romantic comedy “Diana of Dobson’s.”
(Geoffrey Wade Photography)

It’s not hard to imagine a world where the rich and poor live desperately different lives, where the former drink coffee in gowns while the latter toil away for unlivable wages and cluster in underpasses for shelter. All you have to do is ride the No. 2 Metro bus from the Westside to downtown Los Angeles.

Observing similarities between today and the class and gender inequities laid bare in early feminist playwright Cicely Hamilton’s “Diana of Dobson’s,” a 1908 rom-com set in Edwardian England, director Casey Stangl saw an opportunity to revive the largely forgotten play, which runs through June 3 at the Antaeus Theatre in Glendale.

Stangl said she has been trying to find a place for the play since encountering it 25 years ago. “Given the cultural moment we’re in — the #MeToo movement slash renewed thought about women and equality and women’s options — it feels like the perfect time to reexamine this play,” Stangl said of the work that was a hit the year it arrived on the London theater scene.

Antaeus’ artistic directors agreed and gave the green light to produce it.

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Pairing social commentary with comedy, titular heroine Diana Massingberd, performed by Abigail Marks, is introduced as a plucky London shop girl working 14 hours a day for an era-appropriate pittance.

When she inherits a considerable sum from an unknown relative, she decides to spend it all on a truncated taste of the high life — dropping by Paris for dresses before heading to the Swiss Alps to take in the mountain views.

Assuming the identity of a wealthy widow, Diana’s sharp wit wins the affections of two co-vacationing suitors: Victor Bretherton, played by John Bobek, a guileless former military man with a tendency to overspend, and Sir Jabez Grinley, played on a rotating basis by John Apicella and Tony Amendola, a man who made millions on the backs of low-paid employees like Diana.

But when the funds run out, so must Diana — away from what she deems the “ornamental class” and back to the “useful class.”

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The play written by Hamilton, who was a friend of acclaimed playwright George Bernard Shaw, reads like an inverted version of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” in which two men’s efforts transform cockney-accented Eliza Doolittle into a “better, or more acceptable, woman,” Stangl said.

Meanwhile, Diana “remains the same and all the trappings around her change,” Stangl added.

Behind the shop counter, Diana’s bold ways cost her jobs. In high society, they earn her praise.

At a recent production, Marks imbued Diana with a frenetic energy, and a half-cocked, wry smile always at the ready.

“It’s a delight and a fear being Diana,” Marks said, referring to the challenges of embodying such a powerful female character.

Bobek countered Marks’ intensity with an unassuming affect — before riding a major character arc at Diana’s verbal shoving.

Antaeus’ roles are typically double cast, but Marks and Bobek perform the two lead roles in both casts.

To better mentally contextualize the action, Stangl said she and her cast spent time unpacking the play’s underlying social and political themes, including what rights women had — and the many they didn’t — at the time.

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The opening scene, of shop girls living in a dormitory together and discussing their prospects, belies the high stakes women like them faced, Stangl said. Those who didn’t marry or come from a wealthy family often faced a bleak future, she said.

Historical information can deepen a performance, “yet as an actor, once you’ve created all those layers and have that background info, all of that has to be thrown out in order to focus on the moment at hand,” Marks said.

For tickets and more information, visit antaeus.org.

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