Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and adapted by Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Lear de Bessonet. With Zabryna Guevara, Frank Boyd, R. Hamilton Wright, Renata Friedman and Izabel Mar. Now through December 5 at Intiman Theatre.
|Izabel Mar as Pearl and Zabryna Guevara as Hester. Photo by Chris Bennion.|
Yes, we’ve all suffered under the tyranny of 10th Grade American Literature class and being forced to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”...”UGH! A boring old classic! I’d rather read Judy Blume!” Of course, being the lit nerd that I am, I LIKED reading “The Scarlett Letter” in particular, and Hawthorne in general, (all that crazy Puritan angst and voodoo and fecking in the trees symbolism-YUM!), and I was looking forward to Intiman’s new adaptation of the novel by playwright Naomi Iizuka.
My hopes were crushed though, about five minutes into the play and they never rebounded. Intiman’s production of “The Scarlet Letter” is dry and anemic and wan as an elderly school marm’s virgin heart. It never soars, never elevates the soul or the heart or the spirit. It just sits there, like an old, old book on a dusty shelf in the back room of a village library 70 miles from nowhere. Ms Iizuka has seemingly set this production in a vague time and place; we’re not in 17th century New England but some bland Nether, Netherworld occupied by dull little people living in a nondescript religious community and wearing clothes that can best be described as Amish Banana Republic and apparently only populated by 6 people, two of whom are cross-dressers. It’s an underfed, undefined world where passions run beige with banality. The only thing I can be thankful for, was that it was short, about 75 minutes or so. Of course, if I had paid $50 for a ticket, I would have been a bit cross to have gotten so little for my buck…and such small portions.
You all know the story right? Naughty Hester Prynne lives in olden Puritan times in New England and has a clandestine affair with the local preacher, Dimmesdale. But, Hester is married, to an absent husband named Chillingsworth and she is not free to marry the preacher when she discovers that she is pregnant. Since the hubby is gone, but still her legal spouse she can’t marry Dimmesdale, and there wasn’t anything like a Planned Parenthood clinic in the community, she has the child, Pearl, and becomes a pariah of the community, condemned to wear a scarlet “A” (for Adultery) on her breast. Authorities demand she name the father of the bastard child, but Hester refuses, and Dimmesdale is too afraid to step forward. (Personally, I don’t know why they just didn’t run away to Bermuda, or the British Virgin Islands or someplace nice and start a new life under new identities, but then we wouldn’t have had this timeless novel, right?) Meanwhile, Hester suffers the indignities of her neighbor’s scorn, and Pearl is a bit of a Wild Child, and the estranged hubby Chillingsworth shows up to be a thorn in her side as he desperately searches for the identity of the father of Pearl, and Dimmesdale is slowly consumed by his guilty conscience but finally makes amends by publicly announcing he’s the Baby Daddy, and then he dies. The End. Please have your 2000 word essay on the symbolism of the woods in Hawthorne’s work, on my desk by end of period on Friday.
The Intiman production doesn’t vary from the basic facts but we do have a few twists, like the ambiguous setting and time. We also get the Adult Pearl wandering around the stage acting as a narrator/commentator on the proceedings but generally only functioning as a rather anachronistic whiny daughter bitching about her Mother’s odd choices in parental guidance. We’re also hampered by the fact that both lead characters are rendered dull and lifeless in this adaptation, which is partly the fault of the writing, but I’m going to have to also fault the directing, casting and the acting as well.
|Zabryna Guevara and Frank Boyd as Dimmesdale.
Photo by Chris Bennion.
Zabryna Guevara is a an attractive actress with some prestigious credits but she’s not well cast here and I’m going to have to travel in some potentially murky waters here for a moment, but I’ll chance it. She’s too modern for the role. And, let me make CLEAR, I’m not referring to ethnicity either; Ms Guevara is quite obviously not your “normal” choice to play a Puritan housewife but I’m a big believer in “color blind” and even “gender blind” casting…in fact, the news that she had been cast in this production made me all the more keen to see it. But, Ms Guevara is too MODERN of an actress, or, at least has been directed to perform this role in a very modernistic style. I understand what the Intiman’s intentions were with this production; they didn’t want it to be a Puritan period piece but relatable to modern, young audiences. That’s fine…I have no problem, really, with the vague setting and modern clothes, but the passions and emotions in this play are NOT twenty-first century soccer mom having issues with the local PTA. It’s a 19th Century novel set in the 17th Century and it’s a bit of a Gothic soap opera, not an episode of “Law & Order SVU”. There needs to be a bit more passion in this production, and not just sexual passion, but SPIRITUAL passion. The writing, direction and acting seem to shy away from any real friction or conflict. It plays more like an “Afterschool Special” than a work of literature by a master of the early American novel.
I don’t think Ms Guevara was the right actress for her role, (or, she was misdirected to perform too modernistically) but Frank Boyd’s Dimmesdale is even more of a let down. His performance was drier than toast and duller than a time-share seminar. He had no fire, or rage, or turmoil in his performance, and very little chemistry with his leading lady. (I found it difficult to believe that they could get busy enough with each other to make a baby… ) And, every time he appeared on stage, I’d fight the urge to doze off. I hate to judge actors on a single performance, so I won’t rush to judgement. Again, we’ll blame the writing and the directing, at least until I get the chance to see Mr Boyd in something better suited to his talents.
But, a couple actors did stand out. R. Hamilton Wright, a Seattle acting institution, was his usual professionally crisp self and made Chillingsworth a somewhat real and vital character, though I thought his motivations weren’t very clearly defined by the script, and the character was considerably neutered in this adaptation. Mr Wright is always engaging though, and I always perked up every time his character made an appearance. The same goes for young Izabel Mar as the young Pearl. Ms Mar gave the strongest, most vital and interesting performance in the play. Her Pearl was complicated, imperfect, beguiling and bewitching and the 12 year old actress playing her was always clearly focused and commanding. Pearl has a scene where she has a dancing “tantrum” and it was the only moment in the production where I felt SOMETHING come alive and I got chills down my neck. It’s a excellent performance and Ms Mar is a young actress to watch.
|R. Hamilton Wright as Chillingsworth and Frank Boyd as Dimmesdale. Photo by Chris Bennion.|
Mark Anders and Jose J. Gonzales were both good playing all the other characters in the story, including the female ones, which irked me as it seems a bit cheap and mean spirited to not have at least ONE other woman in one of these roles. And, frankly, I thought Mr Gonzales would have made a much better Dimmesdale than the actor cast; he displayed more fire and excitement in his multiple small roles than Mr Boyd in his one.
As for the final actress, Renata Friedman, I like the actress and I have seen her in several other productions recently, but I didn’t like the way the role was written or the way it was conceived, as I mentioned earlier. She’s just a whiny ghost bitching about her mother. It’s an irritating narrative device and I’m sorry that Ms Friedman had to play it. She deserves better.
The spare but beautiful sets by Peter Ksander were effective and compelling. I wasn’t crazy about the concept for the costumes, but the execution was well done by Frances Kenny. And, I wasn’t a fan of the sound design by Todd Reynolds…I don’t know if it was the actual design of the sound, or the execution, or the sound system at Intiman, but the effects for this show, (numerous voices are heard in the background at times) wasn’t very subtle or effective, but jarring and artificial.
Obviously, I’m not a fan of the “concept” of this production. I don’t know how much influence the director, Lear deBessonet had on it, but I’m suspecting it was substantial. Ms deBessonet also has an impressive resume and I haven’t seen any of her other work so I’ll withhold from being too judgemental. I’ll agree to disagree with her and Ms Iizuka’s concept of “The Scarlet Letter”. It was too arid and modern and passionless for my tastes. As we left the theater after the performance, a mob of zombies from “ZomBcon” were marauding through the atrium at the Intiman. They irked me, (I wasn’t in a good mood after the show) but in hind sight, they could have used some of that brain-thirsty vigor on the stage at the Intiman…
Who’s this for? Busloads of school kids on field trips forced to go to academically, “nutritious” theater.
– Michael Strangeways
Boy, you nailed it. I just saw the play and was very disappointed. I came home and Googled its reviews to see if I am alone in my opinions, but I find them expressed by you and the Seattle Times reviewer. But I did love the forest set with its start birch trees. The worst thing for me was Renata Friedman. I found myself cringing every time she was the focus. I thought the violinist was a very skilled musician, however.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said of his book 'The Scarlet Letter' that it would not make a good play, but perhaps a good Opera. He was proved absolutely correct in his prediction by the Intiman's recent stage adaption! Passionless and devoid of any of the symbolism of the original work. The characters were not developed to any extent in this sparse adaption. This recent work will wear the letter F for failure.
I do agree with Michael that, "Ms Mar gave the strongest, most vital and interesting performance in the play. Her Pearl was complicated, imperfect, beguiling and bewitching and the 12 year old actress playing her was always clearly focused and commanding." Brava Ms. Mar!