theater (reviews)

review: the scarlet letter

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-SCARLET.html]

THE SCARLET LETTER

by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Adapted by Rebecca Zellar
Directed by Rebecca Zellar
The GreyZelda Theatre Group
StageLeft Theatre
3408 N. Sheffield / (773) 883-8830
www.stagelefttheatre.com
Through September 16, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
August 24, 2006

The Scarlet Letter is currently in Chicago as adapted and staged by GreyZelda, a young company headed by Rebecca Zellar and Chris Riter. This company is dedicated to “work that is explorative sociality, personally, emotionally, and artistically while emphasizing unconventional methods of staging, casting, and storytelling”. While all of these dimensions are present in this current production, this particular piece does not yet hold together as an integrative whole.

A story round-up for others who (like me) may have forgotten their American literature classes from secondary school. Our play begins part way into the story as Hawthorne wrote it. Hester Prynne (Elizabeth Styles) is about to be released after her imprisonment for refusal to name the father of her child Pearl (played as a youth by Meredith Rae Lyons), borne while Hester believes she is unmarried. We learn from dialogue (and I actually had to look up some clarifying details) that Hester had arrived in American from England some years before ahead of her husband, to locate a house and set up shop. Time had passed, her husband is presumed dead, and Hester has a secret affair with Reverend Dimmesdale (Toby Minor). Hester becomes pregnant, refuses to name the father, and for both crimes (unmarried procreation and refusal to bow to authority and “name names”) is imprisoned. Upon release, we learn that Hester’s missing husband is indeed alive, now goes under the name of Roger Chillingworth (Ron Kuzava), and has moved into Dimmesdale’s household while seeking to identify and ruin the life of the man who has in his mind ruined his and Hester’s lives. Cruel intentions do not win out — Dimmesdale eventually admits to his daughter and to the town that he is the father, and promptly dies. Evil and redemption and social conventions all in one tidy package, complete with heavy lurking symbolism.

The story provides intriguing themes for the modern sensibility. A woman’s voice as source of power – Hester’s refusal to name the father of her child is one of the few sources of power she has as an “outsider” and unmarried woman in the world of the play. The command by those in power to name names resonates for the post-HUAC 1940s and 1950s witch hunts in America (and of course “The Crucible”‘s metaphorical use of precisely those events) as well as our current post 9-11 world of Homeland Security rationales for incursions into personal privacy. A female witch character beseeches Hester to meet with her group (a coven?) at one point, suggesting another dimension to women’s roles in the world of the play. Pearl is a very modern and empowered female child of a single mother, proclaiming at one point “I am my mother’s child”, also refusing to name her father or to even acknowledge a role for another human being in her world.

In this production we have strong elements and not quite a coherent whole. The inspirations for the current production are clearer than the combined effectiveness of all the moving parts. We have words by Hawthorne of course; we have the themes highlighted by Rebecca Zellar’s adaptation; we have movement by way of Martha Graham and Twyla Tharpe; and we have set design and light elements by way of Josef Svoboda and all of his progeny (e.g. draped material that is moved as needed and through which light and shadow project). The design is familiarly modernistic, yet this at times conflicts oddly with the costuming and the oratorical styling of many of the actors. The performances themselves range from consistently moving (Elizabeth Styles as our Hester Prynne) to snarling (Ron Kuzava as Roger Chillingworth) to oddly petulant and sometimes simultaneously strident (Meredith Rae Lyons as Pearl).

Some elements should be applauded. For example, selected set change sequences were choreographed in smooth and interesting ways. In particular, a pivot of a large central table at one point by cast members before Hester and Pearl enter to talk with the Doctor was smoothly done, and this table then becomes the podium from which Dimmesdale delivers his final sermon and the emotional resolution between Hester, Pearl and Dimmesdale occurs. Moments like this integrate beautifully the modernist impulse with the period text in striking ways.

There is a palpable passion that informs this play that is occasionally but not consistently evoked in this production. You want to understand the story, but not all of the actors are quite up to the dialogue and its dialect. You want to understand the juxtaposition of modernist theatrical techniques with realistic set pieces and period costumes, but the integrative vision is not fully realized. You want to go along on the ride but the pieces don’t quite come together. And yet, as noted, there are elements in this production of which this company can rightly be proud.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 24, 2006)

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