On the surface, Charlotte Brontë’s coming-of-age novel Jane Eyre might not seem like typical fare for London’s master of the dark, Jason Rip. In his hands, however, it becomes an almost operatic piece that may owe more to Dickens than Brontë.*
The story is simple enough: as a demonstration of the high ideals and accomplishments of her school/hospital/orphanage, Mrs. Ballyshannon has enlisted her students to perform a play for the home’s benefactors. The audience—apparently other residents, based on the nametags given out before curtain—is present to bear witness to the dress rehearsal of an adaptation of “Jane Eyre”, minus a few “boring” parts.
Comprising mainly young women, the cast impressively create the denizens of Rip’s workhouse-like home. Each is defined by her particular affliction, but not limited to it. As Paulina/Jane, Clara Madrenas is the outsider within and without, and her inappropriately-timed dead-eyed grins are truly creepy. Helen Hey’s Lilly, the adapter of the play within the play, appears to be the youngest of the school’s students but is certainly the most mature, curiously worldly behind her impish smiles. Jessica Ducharme’s exuberant energy is reminiscent of a five-year-old given too much sugar; some of her lines are lost as a result, but isn’t that part of the charm of a five-year-old? Kerry Hishon, playing stage manager Vilette, nicely balances a type-A personality with the impotence forced upon her by her superior; one wonders if Vilette’s stutter may have become worse during her tenure at Mrs. Ballyshannon’s. The final three students, Aimee Adler’s slow-witted Margaret, Marina Sheppard’s reclusive Molly Mott, and Kara Gulliver’s milquetoast Flossy (who is both guardian and guard to Molly), are necessarily downplayed, but when their characters are called upon to come out of their various shells all three prove well-chosen to meet the demands of their roles.
Josh Cottrell eats out on his clown role, playing Hans the not-so-bright farmboy for all he’s worth, but doesn’t give even the hint of a wink to the audience. It’s a fine performance of a character that could easily have become a parody.
Yet it’s wheelchair-bound Mrs. Ballyshannon, Margot Stothers, who rules the school and the stage. Her constant physical presence serves to heighten the mental hold she has over her charges, gained through… what means? Ballyshannon is mercurial, almost charming at times and then effortlessly menacing with nothing but a word or a glance. Her treatment of her most promising students, Vilette and Lilly, is nothing less than cruel; she’s a textbook abuser, with a practised false sincerity that one suspects is only barely sufficient to fool her school’s benefactors.
Rip’s direction focuses on character performance over stage work, keeping each actor mostly within an assigned position or two on the stage. In a more traditional piece that might be a problem, but here it fits the play’s conceit: these are schoolgirls unused to playing dramatic roles. (Or, possibly, to playing at all; headmistress Ballyshannon doesn’t seem the type to encourage—or permit—much unstructured activity.) The emphasis on character more than makes up for the limited movement, though. Each actor presents her or his own titular affliction believably, whether it be language-related, a physical ailment, or a mental disorder. That the collection of odd individuals still forms a coherent, natural ensemble is credit to both Rip and his cast.
Designers Sarah Legault, Diane Haggerty, and Stephen Mitchell have created an effective, if minimal, stage setting for the production. The most prominent set piece, representing Rochester’s North Tower, feels suitably aged and creaky, and the costumes, other set pieces, and props (with the exception of some battery-operated candles), are as simple and plain as would be expected in a Victorian orphanage. Some of the best sound in recent memory has come from shows at Procunier Hall, perhaps due to its small size and reflective walls, and although it’s kept to an appropriate minimum this production is no exception. Lighting, however, is a challenge at Procunier, and the effects near the end were unfortunately also not an exception; that’s not so much a comment on the design, which made sense, as the difficulty of execution in the space.
Fans of Jane Eyre will recognize the book in Mrs. Ballyshannon’s School for Orphaned and Afflicted Girls Presents: “Jane Eyre”, but they may need to squint to see it through the dark veil Jason Rip has placed over the novel. The Brontës’ novels are common fodder for stage and screen adaptations, but one would be hard-pressed to find another even remotely similar to this one.
(Google Translate does a decent job handling the letter from Hans that’s reproduced in the program. I’m not sure what it adds to the production, but Dutch speakers may appreciate seeing that he’s not entirely a buffoon.)