nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 16, 2008
This year, for the third year in a row, Metropolitan Playhouse is celebrating the rich heritage of U.S. literature with a mini-festival devoted to works inspired by a single great American author. Previous years have focused on Poe and Twain; this year, it's Nathaniel Hawthorne taking center stage, in a dozen projects created by some of indie theater's most accomplished artists. I wish I could see them all.
But my schedule only permitted me to take in one of Hawthornucopia's seven different programs; I happened into "Gable C," a double bill of two interesting and almost certainly representative works, new one-acts that offer surprising takes on the Hawthorne canon.
First up is Misty Phantoms, written and directed by Anthony P. Pennino. The title comes from a Hawthorne story, but the plot does not: this is not an adaptation from but rather a "conversation with" the author (Pennino used those words himself when we chatted after the show). The play is set in Michigan in the 1830s or '40s, and introduces us to a hearty young woman pioneer named Evelyn who journeys to what was then remote wilderness to claim an inheritance from a favorite aunt—a cabin in the woods, several miles north of Detroit. Evelyn's only companions in this isolated spot are the two Indian boys who had lived here with her aunt and uncle, Falling Snow (the elder) and Shooting Star. The plot of Misty Phantoms details how some of Hawthorne's writings—which reflect the prevailing belief in his time that Indians were savages whose nations and cultures would soon be entirely wiped out—intrude upon the happy home Evelyn and her charges try to establish. But Pennino hits on larger themes of prejudice, tolerance, and the real enemy of Native Americans (i.e., the diseases that the Europeans brought with them to America) as he fills out the fascinating back story to his tight, compelling drama.
Pennino has crafted this as a kind of story theatre, with actors narrating most of the tale directly to the audience and then acting out key moments in more traditional manner. Brianna Hansen is the very sympathetic anchor of this piece as Evelyn, with John Capalbo (Falling Snow) and Ben Sumrall (Shooting Star) completing the cast.
Following Misty Phantoms is Laura Livingston's A Pearl of Great Price. The title may give you a clue that this is inspired by The Scarlet Letter, portions of which are recreated as a backdrop for a contemporary story about a mother who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, and her daughter who is trying to cope with this. This modern-day plot is intense and, under Yvonne Conybeare's direction, beautifully played by Sue Glausen Smith as the mother and, especially, Amy Smith as the grown daughter.
But I never quite understood the connection between this story and Hawthorne's, other than the fact that the mother seems to be dreaming the tale of Hester Prynne in her troubled consciousness. That said, the rendering of the snippets of The Scarlet Letter here are wonderful, particularly in the portrayal of Hester's daughter Pearl as a remarkable puppet (created and directed by Jon Levin). Metropolitan mainstay Margaret Loesser Robinson offers a most sympathetic Hester, as well.
What's exhilarating about this program of Hawthorne-inspired work is that the artists use these famous American stories as a point of departure to explore their own themes and ideas, rather than merely dramatize them. Thus we are left hungry for more from these contemporary playwrights and directors as well as Hawthorne himself.