BWW Review: A Thought Provoking Adaptation: JANE EYRE at Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park
A Thought-Provoking Adaptation: Jane Eyre at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Opening night at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park is like an extended family reunion. You may not recognize everyone, some faces are familiar, but everyone is jovial and smiling. On March 16, 2017, the lobbies at the Cincinnati Playhouse were packed full of people chatting and anticipating Polly Teale's adaptation of Jane Eyre.
Written by Charlotte Bronte in 1847, Jane Eyre is considered a lot of things: a romance, a gothic horror story, and a proto-feminist commentary written in the Bildungsroman style. Polly Teale read the novel for the first time as a teenager, and in revisiting it she says she "found, not the horror story I remembered, but a psychological drama of the most powerful kind." The novel is full of the dramatic, fanciful, and tragic, and is fertile ground for juicy adaptations to film and stage, but Teale could not get past these questions: "Why...did [Bronte] invent a madwoman locked in an attic to torment her heroine? Why is Jane Eyre, a supremely rational young woman, haunted by a vengeful she-devil? Why do these two women exist in the same story?"
Teale sets out to answer these questions in her 1997 adaptation, and the effects are often fresh and thought-provoking. Jane Eyre purists (if there is such a thing) might find this adaptation a bit disappointing. It's hard to say exactly why, all of the elements are there, but Teale's new focus has the effect of making all of the other parts unfocused. The horror and the mystery, the tension and the romance of Jane Eyre are somehow shifted, pushed aside to make room for the examination of these two female opposites-the rational and the madwoman-that Teale concludes, may not actually be so diametrically opposed after all. Perhaps they are one and the same. But, if some purists end up disappointed, then those who are looking for different approaches to classics, making them more relevant to modern modes of thinking, will be very pleased by this production.
From the moment you enter the theatre and see the set design by Kris Stone, you are pleasantly puzzled. Is this Jane Eyre? Where is the moor? Where is the grand old country house? The set is interestingly modern, like a city loft space or a fancy steakhouse. Ramps zig-zag up to a landing with a small room-sized box on top. A single bare lightbulb hangs from the rafters, and there is a tiny window and one door that locks. The room is painted red.
Suddenly, music begins to move the tale forward. A capella voices are joined by box-drums and guitar. Finally, Young Jane enters wearing her drab dress, and we think, "Ah, here's the Jane we know," but, then she begins playing with a beautiful girl wearing a frilly, bright orange shift. You wonder, "Does this happen in the book?" The girls seem connected, they giggle together, grasp at one another, sometimes they move in perfect unison. Sometimes the girl in orange breaks out in what would be considered wild undulations by the standards of the day-again we puzzle: "Is this Jane Eyre?"
But then cousin John enters, and the story everyone knows begins. Novel-to-stage adaptations can get bogged down in exposition while simultaneously not spending enough time on character shaping moments. Teale's adaptation runs into this conundrum. The play often lacked tension, ticking off events as if they were on a "to do" list. Sometimes the pacing was so quick that we had no time to ruminate on things, and it created the effect of being told a story, second-hand, by someone "who was there," rather than seeing it unfold yourself. But, that effect is not necessarily a bad thing when you are deconstructing something so enduring, and giving it a new spin. Some things were lost, but a lot is gained.
The horror-story tension of the original is absent, primarily because in Teale's version, the madwoman is never a mystery. The horror in this story is no longer the "things that go bump in the night"; it is the idea of being locked away for saying what you think, and for sleeping with whomever you want. Bertha is always there. First trapped in the little red room, staring at the audience. She is quiet for long periods until we almost forget about her, and then she bursts forward again. Teale is not hiding her away to be a surprise at the end. She keeps her in full view for the entire first act. As Jane begins to actually feel like Rochester's equal, the madwoman (who may actually be Jane) begins to move more freely on the stage. She literally lights up candle after candle, as Jane lights figurative candles, making the conflagration inevitable.
Refreshing and cleverly staged by KJ Sanchez, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's production of Jane Eyre, adapted by Polly Teale runs through April 8th.
Go to www.cincyplay.com for information and tickets.
Photo credit: Rochester (Michael Sharon) and Jane Eyre (Margaret Ivey) share a happy moment during the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's production of Jane Eyre. Photo - MIKKI SCHAFFNER; Date - March 2017