Chicago Theatre Review
Charlotte Bronte, death punk rocker
Jane Eyre at Lifeline
I’ll confess, dear reader, that I like my gothic plays gloomy and ghost-filled as anybody, pitting the world worn hero or heroine against all sorts of horrors, both the unearthly and the all too human. Where I draw the line though in the cultivation of spooky atmosphere is a soundtrack that relies upon thunderous drums, electric guitars and whole flocks of “shwarp” sounds (as though something huge and winged was hopping about in the rafters). The decidedly metallic taste of Christina Calvit’s adaptation of Jane Eyre certainly brings this beloved tale of courage and conviction into the modern age, but pays for its passage with the intimacy and immidacy of the world it is supposed to exist in. One cannot push out the image of Charlotte Bronte scribbling away in the old drafty house, heavily made-up around the eyes, banging her head back and forth to the chords of Emily playing Black Sabbath on the piano forte (while Anne stuffs her ears with cotton and retires to another room).
In 1844 (or whenever we are) Jane Eyer (Anu Bhatt) quietly spends her days as governess of Thornfield, a substantial country estate, making small talk with the house keeper Mrs. Fairfax (Heather Currie) and being dogged by a trio of ghosts from her childhood, her abusive aunt (Kyra Morris) her more abusive schoolmaster Brocklehurst (Anthony Kayer) and her typhus stricken childhood friend Helen (Maya Lou Hlava). One day while trying to outpace her parroting tormentors she meets her long-absent employer Edward Rochester (John Henry Roberts), thus beginning one of the great stalkings, er, romances in literary history. But even as she falls for her employers ardent but bizarre advances Jane becomes sensible that Mr. Rochester has his own, much more substantial, ghosts.
Director Dorothy Milne’s vision, death rock included, is certainly a bold and inventive one: her grasp of stage magic and desire to subvert or reinvent the trappings of a period drama are both ardent and evident. Sadly said stage magic, conjured through the mutable set of talented William Bowls (apparently supposed to represent an eldritch wood but instead comes across as a giant display of vertical blinds with sticks on top) tends toward gratuitous circus tricks more than actual spectacle. The physical intimacies between our byronic heroes, though entirely ernest in themselves, were strangely mirrored and discomforted by the jumble of furniture lying about, supposedly to suggest cluttered forrest and rugged sitting rooms but only ending up looking, well … suggestive. That said, Milne’s sense of the production of shivers, is undeniably superb.
For her part Calvit has an ear for the witty banter of 19th century England, and sweeping along both the weird romance and the increasing violence of the story. Her ghost game could use some improvement (one specter on stage is a good device, two are chilling, three are crowd) and her beginning, though starting on an excellent note, soon grows jumbled and we cannot tell if Jane is sitting pretty at Thornfield, locked in the Red Room or dying at the Lowood school; nor how she came to be in any of those place. But her affinity to Bronte’s text and ability to land penny after penny of dry mockery and genteel passion, more than make up for any muddling.Too bad that many of her actors so chew upon the worlds as to render them almost unintelligible (thought their accents are spot on, credit where credit is do). Roberts, leathery in both delivery and costume (one wonder’s if his stable boys have a collection motorcycles to polish), dispenses his witty rejoinders with true aplomb yet grapples with more profound sentiments in a way becoming of Mr. Rochester’s tortured soul but not our distant, straining ears.
Where both Calvit and Milne are in luck, and where the production really comes into its potential, is in their Eyre. Bhatt does far more than any amount of diresome rock to show us Jane’s modern sensibility. Her voice is clear and carrying, her rejoinders. She never “languishes” but carries anger in her sorrow, and prudence in her abandonment. In one luminous scene, combining the imagination of Milne and the adaptational integrity of Calvit, Jane faces down the bullish shade of Brocklehurst and all he represents with nothing but new-found sense of self-worth, and the power of the Force (seriously; Vader would have been put to shame). In that moment Bhatt shows us a Jane more dangerous than any pyrotechnic phantom, more obstinate than any injustice, a Jane who stands by her convictions and graciously but firmly tells the world that her decisions, for good or for ill, are her’s alone. You go girl.
by Ben Kemper
6912 N. Glenwood Ave Chicago, just off the Morse Red Line stop.
Thursday and Friday at 7:30.Saturday at 4:00 and 8:00. Sunday at 4:00.
Tickets $40, Seniors $30, Students $20.
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