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The Scarlet Letter/Love & Lunacy

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A 17th-century heroine in a book from 1850, Hester Prynne has escaped both eras to personify all victims of the sexual double standard. Acknowledging the plight of his bold sinner in the conclusion to his novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne argues the need for a "surer ground of mutual happiness" between men and women. The prime targets in Lookingglass Theatre Company's bold but uneven adaptation by ensemble member Thomas J. Cox are New England hypocrisy at its most mean spirited and the sex fears that fuel it.

As always with Lookingglass, symbols and stage pictures abound. In David Jackson Cushing and Michael Lapthorn's powerful set the Puritan world is suggested by weathered wainscoting and high-backed cane chairs, while Hester and her daughter Pearl are seen against a vista of winter woods, the branches from a tree symbolically cracking through a wall. A silhouette dumb show introduces the novel's tragic triangle. In the second act chairs are hung upside down and hoisted (for reasons that escape me). Later Hester's fellow parishioners joylessly writhe to depict a New England holiday, and after a sermon they lurch into Martha Graham-like repressed gyrations, accompanied by Michael Crane's nervous score.

But unlike the stylized movement of Lookingglass's recent The Arabian Nights, much of the movement here lacks motive. It's employed for effect and doesn't connect with the characters. One reason may be the challenge that dogs any adaptation of The Scarlet Letter: how do you dramatize the secret sin that lies at the heart of the work?

Caught in adultery after bearing a daughter and refusing to name the father, Hester is forced to wear a large A on her dress. Embroidering it with elaborate designs in gold thread, she brandishes it like a medal. But Hester's lover is able to hide, an escape that goads her vengeful husband, the physician Roger Chillingworth, into smoking out the transgressor. With relentless irony, that adulterer is identified as Boston's seemingly holy minister Arthur Dimmesdale. Preyed on by the devious Chillingworth and offering only "penance without penitence," Dimmesdale is as ruined by guilt as Hester is strengthened by her open acknowledgment of her private sin. Both bear a scarlet badge, but Dimmesdale's hidden stigma kills as it eats into his heart. Chillingworth, who has changed his name to hide his identity, pays a similar price.

In Cox's stage pictures these concealed emotions often seem either overexposed or confined to the narration. The production seems to bounce from the visual and physical (the chorus of gesticulating Puritans) to simple verbal recitations (the stilted dialogue taken straight--and stiff--from Hawthorne). Curiously, the novel's most dramatic scenes--which take place on the scaffold in the village marketplace and which ought to provide the peaks for each act--are relegated to stage right, receiving no more emphasis than the stylized sections.

Exploiting the novel's melodrama, Cox has created a series of often silly, half-baked illustrations. But movement is not action, and the tableaux often seem like frenetic attempts to suggest action where there is none.

Moreover, Cox has abused the story-theater style of multiple narratives, letting the characters say things only the author would know. Pearl, for one, sounds as if she's recalling the events as an adult; in fact this "fitful and fantastic elf" is a preternaturally cunning child whose innocence indicts the sin around her--but she can't know that.

The acting must make up for the aimless stage pictures, but it was rough on opening night and didn't seem to touch the audience or help the characters connect. Lawrence DiStasi agonized well as Dimmesdale, the outward saintliness cracking around the inner lie. Though uneven in her energy, a dignified Joy Gregory underlined the protofeminism behind the forthright Hester's public expiation. But David Catlin's lightweight heavy doesn't begin to suggest Chillingworth's Ahab-like obsession or driven fury, and Kathy Randels's puling, bratty Pearl is your basic "bad seed." Daniel Harray was given the adaptation's most heavyhanded caricature, the wicked magistrate. His clown judge injects one more false note into a Scarlet Letter that too often provides only colorful comments on a classic.

Taking its literature straight and appealing to the audience's power of imagination is the goal of the newly formed Writers' Theatre-Chicago (despite its name, performing in the spacious back room of a Glencoe bookstore). Love & Lunacy, the inaugural offering, is a delightful evening of four Russian stories: one by Nikolay Gogol, adapted by Elliott Hayes, and three by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Michael Halberstam. Like the monthly series "Stories on Stage," this production draws its power from that great, simple partnership--the voice and the ear. Ably orchestrated by Halberstam, the three story-telling actors spin a quick spell.

Gogol's "Diary of a Madman" depicts an obscure filing clerk in a czarist bureaucracy whose mind slowly becomes unhinged as he falls hopelessly in love with his superior's daughter. Refusing to admit he's only a disposable functionary, he slowly hallucinates a better world in which dogs correspond with each other and newspapers send him secret messages. His diary entries chart both his mental breakdown (from "October 3" to "April 43, 2000") and the astonishment of the hostile outside world, as he sees it, at learning that he's the rightful heir to the Spanish throne.

Enacting this operatic mad scene takes astonishing control and breathtaking timing. (It's demanding enough just to read it.) Reinventing the meaning of bravura, Brad Crews makes the clerk's disintegration both funny and scary, often simultaneously.

Each of Chekhov's wryly observed portraits of three couples scores big. "He & She" concerns a temperamental diva and her manager husband who are linked by her art and his anger, "The Crooked Mirror" concerns a husband obsessed with the flattering mirror of his wife's great-grandmother, and "The Trick" a man who comes to regret having played a silly trick on the woman he should have married. Michael Barto and Karen Woditsch play the varied couples with mercurial charm, missing little of the knowing wonder and warmth with which Chekhov fills them. Equally eloquent is their clear enjoyment in performing the works.


THE SCARLET LETTER
Lookingglass Theatre Company
at the Theatre Building
LOVE & LUNACY
Writers' Theatre-Chicago
at Books on Vernon

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