Just like it’s 1799
Brüka Theatre’s Scarlet Letter has an updated feel, but it’s still the same old Hawthorne
Brüka Theatre’s The Scarlet Letter, directed by Stacey Spain, is not the most thrilling play I’ve seen. Truth be told, I never liked Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, upon which this adaptation by Phyllis Nagy is based. But if I have to revisit Hawthorne’s most famous tale, Nagy’s version—streamlined and with modern dialogue and themes—is probably the least painful way to go.To sum up: It’s approximately 300 years ago in Boston, and the Puritans are very much In the House. Hester Prynne is a young woman who has been sent from England to Boston to await the arrival of her older husband, Roger Chillingworth. After two years with no word from her husband, Prynne has an affair with the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale and they produce a child, Pearl.
Prynne’s lifelong punishment is to wear a scarlet “A” on her breast, and still she refuses to name Pearl’s father. Chillingworth, posing as a doctor, finally arrives and resolves to find and destroy Pearl’s father while keeping his own identity a secret. But the clergyman won’t need much help kicking off; he’s dying under the weight of his own guilt.
If your memory of high school English class is a little fuzzy, I won’t ruin the ending by revealing it here. I will say, however, that there are many layers of symbolism and theme in The Scarlet Letter that can’t possibly be summed up in one review, so buy the CliffsNotes.
I loved Lewis Zaumeyer’s set design, which is as chilling and stark as the Puritanical mindset: a couple large black platforms, a tiny pseudo-graveyard and a smattering of artfully placed bare branches. The intimate, underground setting of the Sub-Brüka cabaret space enhances the intimacy of the relationships unfolding on stage.
I can’t imagine a better choice for Hester Prynne than Mary Bennett, who succeeds in combining strength and weakness into one complex character. Jason Nash was also impressive as Dimmesdale, lending a painful honesty to the clergyman’s physical and mental weaknesses.
Pearl is played by an adult in Nagy’s adaptation, and the role is capably filled by Kahele (just Kahele). Pearl’s character is often interpreted as a living embodiment of Prynne’s sin; in other words, she’s completely obnoxious. By the end of the play I wanted to strangle Kahele, which means she did a fine job. I was also happy with Zaumeyer’s turn as Chillingworth, which was just as weird and creepy as it should be.
As for the supporting characters, I felt the governor (Mike Maupin) and his sister (Rachael Lewis) were played a bit too over the top. Keith Anderson’s role as prison guard Brackett was a stock character from start to finish—the simple, honest, hardworking Joe—but he certainly looked and sounded the part.
In the first act, there were several instances where actors fumbled lines or talked over each other, which surprised me in a cast this talented. I also felt that Nagy’s attempts to incorporate humor into this heavy drama often fell flat. So, despite my appreciation for many of the actors’ performances, I have to conclude that Brüka’s Scarlet Letter was not up to the usually high standard the company has set.