Saturday, August 19, 2006

Daily Herald Review - The Scarlet Letter

Letter imperfect

Casting, set undermine classic tale of adultery
BY BARBARA VITELLO Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Thursday, August 17, 2006

GreyZelda Theatre's adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne deserves a letter.

But it doesn't merit an "A."

Questionable casting, a distracting set and some awkward transitions that may confuse audiences unfamiliar with the classic novel mean this adequate production of "The Scarlet Letter" fails to earn a top grade.

And yet GreyZelda's version stands head and shoulders above Roland Joffé's spectacularly ill-conceived 1995 film starring the spectacularly mediocre Demi Moore as Hester Prynne.

Unlike Joffé and Moore, whose famously bastardized ending made a mockery of the tragedy, director Rebecca Zellar remains faithful to Hawthorne. Her scrupulous adaptation keeps intact the novel's dialogue. And while it has yet to match the expertise of say Lifeline Theatre, a company renowned for its masterful literary adaptations, newcomer GreyZelda shows promise.

The production also benefits from solid acting from its principals, especially Elizabeth Styles as an appropriately stoic Hester, who bears a child out of wedlock, is convicted of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet "A" as punishment. Hester emerges as a woman of commanding will, who from shame and humiliation forges an identity independent of the one her puritanical society imposes. Styles carries herself with the dignity and calm reserve Hawthorne's proto-feminist heroine demands. It is a quietly noble performance, capped off by an emotional, well-acted reunion with Toby Minor's Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the flawed clergyman who shares Hester's sin but not her punishment.

Minor is passionate as a guilty man consumed by sin and hypocrisy who draws from Hester the strength necessary to confess and thereby earn his salvation.

Ron Kuzava plays Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband, who is presumed dead but returns under an assumed identity to exact revenge on his wife's lover.

A study in obsession and vengeance, Chillingworth is a man crippled by hate, whose deliberate revenge emerges as the play's greatest expression of evil.

Playing the role with a perpetual scowl, Kuzava makes an especially effective predator.

Also Kuzava and Minor resemble each other, a clever bit of casting that underscores the bond shared by these men, unwavering in their beliefs and ultimately corrupted by them. The production fares best when this trio is on stage.

Lisa Baer stands out among the supporting cast, most of whom deliver mundane performances, with several inexplicably adopting British accents when an indistinct, mid-Atlantic one would have better suited the 17th century Boston setting. Meredith Rae Lyons also stands out, but for the wrong reasons. Lyons is clearly too old to play Pearl, Hester's 7-year-old daughter. That bit of miscasting, plus several other missteps make this less than letter perfect.

The minimalist set consists of gauzy white panels suspended from the ceiling which serve as the backdrop for projections and shadow shows. As visuals, they work best when only a few actors occupy the stage. Otherwise they are distracting; likewise the ethereal background music from 1980's goth rock band Miranda Sex Garden. However, the stylized group pantomime - an expression of Puritan repression, guilt and passion that serves as prologue - works. But not so the recap of the Hester-Dimmesdale-Chillingworth triangle that begins the second act as little more than a redundant distraction.

"The Scarlet Letter"

Location: Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago
Times: 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday through Sept. 16
Running time: About two hours, including intermission
Parking: Street parking available
Tickets: $15
Box office: (773) 267-6293 or
Rating: For teens and older

No comments: