With Hester Prynne, the heroine of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne created one of American literature's most wonderfully flawed characters. There's much to love about Hester and much that is worrisome. She's a sinner and an adulterous, but she's also a courageous woman who wishes to atone and take responsibility for her misdeeds.
Yes, Hester Prynne is flawed. So too is the current stage adaptation of The Scarlet Letter now playing at the University of Texas. Like Hester, there is much to love about this production, but there is much that is worrisome as well.
The design work here is extraordinary. James V. Ogden's set is a wooden marvel. It's plain and simple yet massive and daunting. The costumes by Yao Chen succeed in taking us into another world and another time, as do the lighting by Dawn M. Wittke and projections by Stephanie Busing.
On the other hand, Sarah Saltwick's script, making its world debut here in Austin, is hit and miss. Befitting for a play about infidelity, the script is at its best when it stays faithful to the original novel by Hawthorne and fails when it strays from the classic. As a whole, the show follows Hawthorne's story of the adulterous Hester Prynne and her expulsion from her Puritanical community. However, there are a few changes omissions, and additions, the most puzzling being the occasional use of Tori Amos songs. I love Tori Amos, but I find it troubling that Puritans in colonial Boston are signing 1990s American pop-folk songs.
And the oddities in the script don't stop there. The most notable change is the expansion and retooling of the character of Mistress Hibbins, played by the outstanding Mackenzie Dunn. In Hawthorne's book, Mistress Hibbins is a supporting character and the sister of the Governor. While Hawthorne makes it clear to the reader that Mistress Hibbins is probably a witch, no one in the town accuses her of witchcraft because of her family ties, thus using the character to illuminate the hypocrisies in colonial Boston. Here, Saltwick reimagines Hibbins as a character who is just as scorned, reviled, and punished as Hester. While I'm sure the intent was to show that this village despises anyone who is different and therefore dangerous, the changes have the undesired effect of pulling focus away from the conflicts surrounding Hester and downplaying Hawthorne's themes and motifs about hypocrisy.
The show also suffers from some poor directing choices. Director Steven Wilson stages the play on a thrust stage with audience members seated on three of four sides of a rectangular playing space but his blocking is more suited for a traditional proscenium stage. Anyone sitting in either of the side seating areas will see more of the actor's backs than faces. And while James V. Ogden's wooden set is beautiful, a series of wooden pillars towards the back of the stage blocks the view of any upstage scenes, many of which are important.
But blocking issues aside, Wilson is able to get strong performances out of his young cast. Sarah Konel is exceptional as Hester Pyrnne, particularly in the many scenes where she and her daughter are threatened by the town. She is strong but vulnerable and a fine actress. Jacques Colimon gives a fantastic performance as Doctor Chillingsworth. Though he has a soft, gentle, and sometimes sly exterior, Colimon's Chillingsworth is a villain to be feared with a strong undercurrent of anger and hate that drives everything he does. But the strongest stand-out of this phenomenal cast is Cara Spradling as Hester's daughter, Pearl. While she may still be in elementary school, Spradling is already gifted performer. She is completely believable as the curious, witty, and precocious little girl.
Though this adaptation of The Scarlet Letter still has a few rough patches that need improvement, it is overall a strong debut for a new piece of theater. With a few rewrites and a touch more reverence to Hawthorne's original work, Saltwick could create a new classic out of an old one. But even as it stands right now, The Scarlet Letter is worth seeing for its splendid cast.
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission.
THE SCARLET LETTER, produced by University of Texas at Austin's Department of Theater and Dance, plays now thru December 7th in the B. Iden Payne Theatre. Performances are November 29 - 30, Dec 1, and Dec 5-7 at 8pm and Dec 2at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$25. For tickets and information, go to http://www.texasperformingarts.org/event/the-scarlet-letter-ut-austin-theatre-dance.