Performing Kate Hamill: A Bold Risk for Water Tower Theatre

Romancers in Pride and Prejudice: Jenny Ledel, Kate Paulsen, Justin Duncan, John-Michael Marrs

The concept of “re-imagining” performance art seems to be en vogue lately, discussed and debated as if it’s something new, innovative. There’s nothing much new about it. William Shakespeare “re-imagined” virtually every play published under his name, and it has worked out quite well for him and about 500 years’ worth of theatre audiences. Very little exists under the sun that is truly new….

I don’t inherently dislike “re-imagining” theatre. If it works, an audience may emerge refreshed and invigorated with a renewed perspective on life from the transformative experience. On the other hand, if the re-imagining doesn’t go well, the audience may emerge confused when no tangible improvement or illumination takes place. Enormous energy spent, for what? A presumption of “increased accessibility”?

Wendy Welch, Steph Garrett in full wail

Water Tower Theatre’s current production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, adapted/ re-imagined by the much-lauded young performance artist Kate Hamill, falls, overall, more into the latter category than the former. I do not quibble with the ensemble’s decided mastery of the saucy style, tone and pace of Hamill’s comprehensive adaptation. Director Joanie Schultz assembled a distinguished cast of some of the region’s most talented artists, emerging to established, to sail this hyper-kinetic adaptation along as apparently Hamill intended. Every actor in this ensemble gives 200%, whether playing a solo part or multiple roles. Schultz drives their intensity with laser focus, a captain steering her ship at warp speed, sirens screeching, with firm grasp of ultimate destination. It’s interesting to step out of the world of the play and marvel at the actors flying in and out of roles and scenes with alacrity and assurance. They bound from front row seats, adding or shedding costume pieces and caricatured personalities as fast as the pervasively castor-driven set pieces hurtle on and off, up and down the playing space, in time with them. Here’s what saddens me. It becomes more of a highly acrobatic actor exercise in energetic engagement than a respectful but vital dramatization of a classic work of literature. It doesn’t need to emerge as yet one more Masterpiece Theatre Redux. BUT. Does this adaptation lead me into a fresh view of its original work’s themes or distract me from them? Do the women characters really need to be so interminably shrill and hyper-kinetic they are hard to follow and understand and the male characters so overtly stylized as caricature? At least you can understand what the male characters say. Steph Garrett’s balls-out portrayal of the bizarrely affected Lady Catherine reveals the young actor’s supreme fearlessness in exploring verbal exaggeration, even as its comic impact wanes as continuous, one-dimensional send-up. Occasionally the frenzy abates. In Act Two, Jenny Ledel, Brandon Potter and John-Michael Marrs deliver several lines with genuine, nuanced emotion, launching momentarily into the heart of the work with their fine interpretive skills and lucid voicing. In those few lines, they present a delicate balance between classical and re-imagined performance, truer to the original spirit of the work and thematically resonant. This is the cast that could blend both approaches with authority and grace. If you attend Water Tower Theatre’s production expecting to see a “traditional” Pride and Prejudice, set that aside. This is a very different sort of interpretation. A disappointment for some will surely delight others.

Bob Hess, Wendy Welch

What works: The wide open set (Chelsea Warren), with audience benched on opposite facing sides, tennis court style, reflects the “grandeur” of the early 1800’s era with a splendidly garish Oriental rug motif painted across the playing space. Period set pieces roll about, on and off as needed, on the afore-mentioned castors. No moment exists when the audience can’t see action due to cumbersome set pieces, no moment when scene transition drags due to the hauling of heavy period furnishings. They roll like The Furies. Perpendicular to the audience, two period style arched entrances hung with heavy drapery allow actors to make formal, grand entrances, appropriate to the era depicted. Flexible, colorful, captivating scenic design, some of the best I have seen in Water Tower Theatre’s Main Stage space and superbly reflective of the tone and style of the adaptation. Costumes, by Sylvia Fuhrken Marrs, blend period styling smoothly with modern elements, noticeably in contrast but not distracting. The anachronistic approach adds whimsy and reinforces the thought that in spite of our garb and gadgets, we still act much the same today as humans from the 19th century.

Not so cool: Sound design (Ryan Swift Joyner) carries Hamill’s modernized re-imagining along with peppy pop and rock tunes. The selections don’t reflect the romantic arc of the work with consistency. They seem selected at random to reinforce generalized “modernity” but not the play’s specific themes. Opportunity missed.

This production, a regional premiere, is a bold, risky undertaking. I have advocated strongly for Water Tower Theatre, written features, profiles, grant applications and reviewed their shows for almost a decade. I have honored their productions regularly in my End of Year Best Of’s. My 2016 Out of the Loop Festival article garnered Water Tower Theatre its first feature coverage by American Theatre Magazine. I support the company’s mission and believe it to be a valuable player in our arts community. This production, a regional premiere, is a bold, risky undertaking.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, adapted from the novel by Kate Hamill and directed by Joanie Schultz, runs through November 4, 2017. The cast includes: Wendy Welch, Bob Hess, Jenny Ledel, Kate Paulsen, Justin Duncan, Steph Garrett, Brandon Potter, John-Michael Marrs. Photos by Jason Anderson

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