Monday, March 6, 2017

Brontë Family Circulating Among the Stacks at Hillsboro Library

Picture (from top left, clockwise) is of Joey Copsey, Peter Schuyler,
Cassie Greer, Morgan Cox, and Jessi Walters.

By Tina Arth

Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Theatre has faced some huge challenges in the past year – like opening night of an outdoor performance forced by rain to quickly adjourn to the barren concrete floor of their unfinished new theater space. However, that was nothing compared to the fancy footwork required to re-imagine the staging of their current production of Brontë from the venerable Venetian stage to the Hillsboro Public library. Guest Director Michelle Milne, her cast and crew, and the library staff are collaborating to make this production of British playwright Polly Teale’s 2005 play an amazingly engaging and thought-provoking experience. Better yet, the evening flows so smoothly, and provides such an intimate experience for the audience, that one imagines a conventional production might seem slightly static and sterile by contrast.

Brontë tells the sometimes accurate, sometimes fictional tale of the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), their father Patrick, brother Branwell, and curate Arthur Bell Nicholls living and dying in isolation on the Yorkshire moors.  A constant unspoken theme is the effect of Victorian sexual mores on the three women’s lives and work. Ironically, the sisters’ degree of repression and introversion is inversely proportional to the scandalous and sexualized tone of their writing. Cassie Greer’s bold, adventurous Charlotte produces the critically acclaimed, but relatively tame Jane Eyre. Morgan Cox’s brilliant but very private Emily shocks the literary world with the fierce passions of Wuthering Heights. However, it is Jessi Walters’ gentle, timid Anne who thrusts themes of domestic abuse and debauchery – hardly topics for polite society – center stage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Without sets to create atmosphere, the audience is required to rely on imagination and a forest of books – just as the real Brontë sisters used imagination and their father’s extensive library to break the boundaries of their narrow world and create some of the most passionate fiction of the 19th century. While the audience moves about in the library, the story also moves freely, jumping forward and backward in time and interspersing frequent cameos by characters from the sisters’ most iconic novels: Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, and Jane, Rochester, and Bertha from Jane Eyre.  

The acting is every bit as good as we have come to expect of a Bag & Baggage cast – Greer, Cox and Walters capture the three sisters personas flawlessly. Peter Schuyler transitions easily from the upright and autocratic Patrick to the brooding, volatile Rochester and the timid, lovestruck Nicholls. Joey Copsey is at his best as Branwell, who moves from boyish exuberance and abandon to dissolute alcoholism when his father’s ambitions send him out of the protection of the family home and into the harsh realities of the outside world.  Jenny Newbry’s take on Cathy is spot-on – an eerie mixture of passionate abandon and barely controlled hysteria. Newbry’s Bertha is a bit tougher to accept, perhaps because in the library setting we are a little too close to her as she crawls madly around a series of rooms.

Melissa Heller’s costumes are just detailed enough to suggest each change in character, while allowing for the rapid changes required by the play’s unique staging. Violinist Taylor Neist expresses the ever-changing moods of the story, evoking especially well the darker moments, starting strong and then fading as only a violin can.

The structure of the production limits the audience to 60 people per night, so it’s advisable to purchase tickets early.  Even if Brontë should happen to be produced again locally, it may never get the kind of progressive treatment that Michelle Milne gives it. The audience is called on to walk enough that sensible shoes are strongly recommended!

Bag & Baggage’s Brontë is playing at the Hillsboro Public Library, Brookwood branch, with performances at 7:30 P.M. on March 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, and 26. 

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