Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wuthering Heights (Stage Production) Review

I watched the performance of Wuthering Heights by the Aquila Theatre on October 13, 2014. This adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel was written by Desiree Sanchez, who also directed the production. This was a touring cast, which I caught at my alma mater of St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame, Indiana. The Aquila Theatre’s permanent home is at New York University.

Film and video recording were prohibited at the performance, so these photos are borrowed from Aquila Theatre’s website, for informational purposes.

The cast consisted of six actors. There are more than six characters in the adaptation, so this required some of the actors to play multiple characters. I’d recently watched a performance of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by the Actors From the London Stage at the University of Notre Dame in which all the roles were played by five actors. I was familiar with this type of production, but I can’t say it’s one of my favorites.

Nor did I understand the framework of the adaptation. As the play opened, all six actors were on stage, and they appeared to be in some sort of industrial setting, working in a mill. I say a mill because the program, under the cast list, says “Edgar Linton/Mill Foreman,” “Heathcliff/Mill Worker #5,” etc. I don’t understand what the mill is supposed to represent. The novel doesn’t even take place in an urban setting. Perhaps if I’d gotten to my seat a little sooner, I would have heard a preface of some sort, but it had been a long day at work and I barely had time for theater-going.

Still, it’s tough for me to resist an adaptation of a Bronte sisters novel. I love Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre to bits.

The lighting designer was Peter Meineck. With the minimalist set (another theater convention of which I’m not overly fond – I prefer the elaborate production), the lighting was one of the most pleasing things about this production. I especially liked the way that the actor’s shadows projected on the right and left walls of the auditorium on both sides of the stage. It was lovely to turn my head and observe how much the shadows told the stories of the characters merely through their body language.

Here I’ve sorted my thoughts about the performances by character. I barely need to mention James Lavender, the actor playing Old Earnshaw, Joseph (the fire-and-brimstone-preaching servant), and the doctor, as well as a mill worker. I’m sure he’s a fine actor, but those are the least important roles in this adaptation.

Nelly:  By far the most sympathetic character in the adaptation, and a narrator just as she is in the book (of the story within the story, that is), Nelly Dean was played by Lizzy Dive. Ms. Dive is a lovely full-figured woman with a rich voice meant just for storytelling. She was by turns maternal, particularly with Heathcliff and then Hareton, and exasperated with Catherine. To use a netspeak turn of phrase, Nelly is SO DONE with Catherine.

The role requires an incredible amount of REACTING on Nelly’s part, and Dive had mastered the art. This was especially evident in the scene in which Nelly is physically menaced by the drunken, degenerated Hindley.

Dive also took a brief turn as Frances, the wife of Hindley and mother of Hareton. I know it’s impractical to keep another actress on the road tour just to play the small role of Frances. However, it stretches credulity to imagine the hale, hearty Nelly embodied in the same way as fragile Frances.

Catherine: Kali Hughes played Cathy. According to her biography, her acting credits include The Count of Monte Cristo; I wonder if she played Mercedes. Also, there’s a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo?! We needs it, precious.

But back to the play at hand. Ms. Hughes as Cathy delivered an impeccably harrowing, suitably wild-hearted performance. When Cathy, as her final illness was coming on, didn’t recognize her own face in the mirror, Hughes gave a truly blood-curdling scream. Her mannerisms and body language managed to perfectly convey the depths of her feelings for Heathcliff, the instability of her wild character, her insouciance, the shallowness of her feelings for Edgar, her madness, and even her pregnancy. It was subtle performance.

I thought maybe at the end they’d lift her into the air like they did to Marge Simpson as Blanche Dubois in the Springfield production of Streetcar, but mercifully they didn’t.

Heathcliff:  The equally complex and challenging role of Heathcliff was taken on with aplomb by Dale Mathurin. Let me tell you a thing about Dale Mathurin: he’s stop-your-breath gorgeous. Now let me tell you a thing about why he’s so perfect for the role of Heathcliff: In addition to the fact that he’s been acting since he was seven years old, he’s a Briton of African descent. I know what you’re thinking: white British, black British, Pakistani British, Indian British, Chinese British, Polish British – they’re all just British. They’ll all pop ‘round to the pub with their mates, have a pint, grab a takeaway curry on their way back to their flats, and put on the kettle for a cuppa.

But the brilliance of casting a person of color in the role of Heathcliff is that Emily Bronte repeatedly describes him as “black” and “a Gypsy” in the novel. As much as I love Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff, there’s nothing about Fiennes’ lovely pale complexion that suggests the Roma people. The Roma are what my Jewish ancestors are: an Asian ethnicity that immigrated to Europe, except the Roma’s homeland is India. Heathcliff may be of Indian descent, or he may be of Afro-Caribbean descent; we can’t count on the rural English people of the novel to know or care about the difference. Either way, he is almost certainly a person of color.

When I first read that Andrea Arnold was filming an adaptation with Heathcliff as a black man, I was super excited to see her movie. I didn’t end up liking it, but not because of Solomon Glave as young Heathcliff or James Howson as adult Heathcliff. I just thought the sets were too dark for the action to be seen, the film was too silent, and half the time I couldn’t quite make out what was going on.

The stage production wasn’t plagued with those problems. Dale Mathurin will rank up there among my favorite Heathcliffs. He’s a damn sight better at it than Tom Hardy, at any rate.*

Edgar: The Masterpiece Classic movie version ruined for me any Edgar Linton who isn’t Andrew Lincoln. Stupid Englishman-turned-zombie-killing-American; why do you have to be so damn handsome? To be honest, though, casting Lincoln to play Edgar Linton is an example of what TV Tropes would call AdaptationalAttractiveness. Bronte herself named Linton in a Dickensian way; he was probably about as attractive as his name suggests. Calder Shilling did a fine job of playing him.

Isabella: One of the things that disappointed me most about this performance was that Isabella, a rather important character to this adaptation, was played by Michael Ring, the actor playing Hindley. Yes, Isabella is young, na├»ve, and silly, and she’s as frail as her brother, and to some extent Bronte makes her an object of mocking. Still, I’d like to see her humanized a little more by having her played by a woman, since having her played by a male actor makes her look that much more ridiculous. In theory I have nothing against gender-blind casting, but in the case of Isabella Linton it did somewhat rub me the wrong way.

In the end, what disappointed me about this play the most was what disappoints me the most about almost all the adaptations of WH: they leave off the ending. For me, if we don’t get to the part where Heathcliff finally joins Cathy in death, their spirits are said to haunt to moors, and Cathy the younger finally gets to be free with Hareton, then the story is seriously lacking in any sort of resolution. This one cut off just after Catherine the elder’s death, with barely a mention of Cathy the younger’s existence. After Heathcliff’s impassioned speech begging Cathy to haunt him, Nelly gave a brief wrap-up, they all returned to their odd mill worker poses, and curtain.

*At intermission, I heard some men two rows back from me talking about a recent film adaptation starring Christian Bale as Heathcliff. I wish! But they were simply mistaking one actor from The Dark Knight Rises for another. Also, they couldn’t remember what happened to Isabella in the novel, whether she died in childbirth or lived. They didn’t remember the latter chapters of the book very well at all. I thought that was a little sad, since the novel is best grasped as a whole, its plot being somewhat circular.

Here’s a quick rundown on them: Isabella escapes her wretched, abusive marriage to Heathcliff, fleeing to London with their young son, who is named, simply, Linton. However, Isabella eventually dies, and the fragile Linton is forced to move back to Wuthering Heights with his father. When Linton and Catherine the younger are teens, Heathcliff uses them as pawns in his revenge game, forcing them into a marriage. Then Linton dies, and Heathcliff treats his nominal daughter-in-law as if she were a household servant. Thus Catherine the younger meets the love of her life: Hareton. After Heathcliff’s death, Catherine and Hareton are free to pursue their romance – the redemptive ending to this whole sad drama. 

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