Sunday, December 13, 2009

pict does "jane eyre"

So I am taking a break from writing my blogging paper to... blog.  Which is probably not a good idea, considering that I've been sitting in front of this laptop on and off since about 9:30 this morning and even more typing will not help the painful carpal tunnel in my wrists.

I did take a long break from typing last night, though, to see the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater's performance of "Jane Eyre" at the Stephen Foster Memorial.  The tickets were extremely expensive- $17 for a ticket for "Youth" under 25 years of age, and can be up to $46 for an adult over that age. But I had several reasons for wishing to see this performance:
  • Jane Eyre has been my absolute favorite novel since I was 16.  I love this book so much I bought a pocket-sized copy, simply to carry around with me.  I sometimes reread favorite passages, which usually include the colorful dialogues between Jane and Mr. Rochester.
  • My dear friend Christine was performing as Helen Burns, Jane's sickly, God-loving Lowood schoolmate.
  • I wanted to write a review for this blog about the play, since it is a theatrical take on a Victorian novel being performed in my adopted city of residence.
image source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I was a little wary about seeing this play due to a less than favorable review of the play in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but a bad review was not enough to stop me. Neither was my inability to convince my friends to purchase an expensive ticket to a Saturday night showing during finals week, so I sat by myself.  That was not bad at all, actually- I spent the time reading the program and a little of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss before the lights dimmed and the show began.

One thing to keep in mind about this play are my personal biases towards the story and the play.  For one, my favorite film adaptation of the novel is the 1944 version, starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester.  The best way to describe Welles' interpretation of Mr. Rochester is that of a gruff, abrupt, rude and yet brazenly honest and passionate man who has been used harshly by the world.  His affection is practically sadistic, and sometimes you wonder why the seemingly fragile Jane is so drawn to a man who so appears to be her complete opposite.  One eventually discovers, however, that the two are kindred spirits intellectually and, as one dramatic scene in a thunderstorm suggests, perhaps even spiritually.  Besides, Rochester's unrefined qualities make him so interesting as a character, one can never be sure where his temper or his dialogue will go next:


This movie was my first exposure to Charlotte Bronte's novel, so when I actually read the story myself, the image of Rochester looked almost exactly like Welles. As for Joan Fontaine, she's too pretty to make a convincing Jane.

Another bias is, of course, my friend Christine's presence in the production, but of the character she portrayed I have little to say.  Helen Burns helps to shape Jane's prevalent Christianity later on in the play, of course, but Helen herself only occupies five minutes of the play, so Christine's involvement did not significantly affect my thoughts on the production.

I was surprised, in a good way, about many aspects of the play.  One of them was the nearly loyal transfer of both dialogue and action in the play.  It was not some crazy artistic bastardization of the story, but a homage to Charlotte Bronte's literary genius.  Don't get me wrong; I am not overly picky when it comes to loose interpretations of many stories, and I can think of many ways that this particular play could have cut out a good portion of the story and not lost its overall effect (I myself never was fond of the St. John Rivers side story, even if it develops Jane's character even further), but I was pleased that most of the principle action and situations were maintained.  But this loyalty to the story may have confused audience members who are not familiar with the original novel, as a lot of the play is dialogue, and actions often occur off-stage.

Scene changes were probably also a headache for strangers to the story. I fully agree with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Bob Hoover's complaints about the scenery:

The manor's furnishings troubled me. Designer Downs placed clumps of fake boulders around the stage and they double as the manor's furniture. Somebody might be tempted to ask, "I say, Rochester old chap, what's that big rock doing in the drawing room?"

Sure, I know Downs used them to indicate the English countryside, but most of the play is set indoors, so his choice seems out of synch.
The lack of indoor furniture also made scene changes confusing.  I was fortunate enough to have an idea of what dialogue was set to which scenes from having read passages of the book so many times, but others who are not obsessed with the novel as I am may not have known that.

The backdrops, however, were beautiful.  They were a rusty-stained metal gate design that looked like leafless trees, covered over with a torn, hand-written page from the book covering the gate.  The gate had doors and hinges to open it in different ways to indicate changes of scenery (it was opened more in outdoor scenes, and closed more in indoor ones, or in smaller houses or rooms.)  And the accompanying music- just a pianist and clarinet player/ bassoonist - was gorgeous and fitting.

The actors and actresses were very good for the most part.  The best by far was the adult Jane, played by Allison McLemore.  She was a perfect mix of a passionate, yet timid and humbled young woman torn by love for Mr. Rochester and Christian morality.  The funny thing is, I had never, ever pictured Jane to be as expressive as McLemore's Jane was.  I had always imagined her to be soft-spoken and pragmatic, even at the most trying moments of her interactions with Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers.  But McLemore altered my perception of Jane so much that I spent a good amount of time after coming home from the play poring over some of Jane's dialogue in my copy of Jane Eyre, trying to determine if lines that I had previously thought were spoken calmly, without emotion, were actually written to be more passionate by Bronte.  I determined that most of those lines, in fact, deserved more emotion than I had previously imagined them to be spoken in my mind.

I was not so crazy about Mr. Rochester, played by David Whalen.  What was with that God-awful wig?  He did a decent job as Mr. Rochester, much better than I had even hoped for, but he could never compare to Orson Welles' performance.

Adele was terrible.  I could hardly hear her, and her French accent was pretty bad.  And Bertha Mason was... well, a wacko giant.  She looked like a mix between Hagrid from the Harry Potter series and Tia Dalma from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  Which made me wonder how Jane could have not seen her sneaking around Thornfield throughout the play.  She was kind of hard to miss.

Joel Ripka transferred well from his roles as Richard Mason and St. John Rivers, as did Anna Van Valen as first Blanche Ingram and later Diana Rivers.

Then there was poor Shelley Delaney, the only actress to be on stage throughout the entire play.  She served as the narrator, an "elder" Jane and did a terrific job of it.  It was quite interesting to see her sometimes actually share the narration with both the "young" Jane before she goes to Lowood (played by Jenna Lanz) and with the adult Jane.  Jane's own thoughts are often directed to the elder Jane as an of extension of her own psyche, which, yet again, may have been confusing to audience members who were unfamiliar with the original story.

Overall, it was an excellent, faithful production for fans of Charlotte Bronte's beloved novel, but don't take your non-literary friend if you want them to get into the story- they may very well get lost along the way.

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