Mrs. Ballyshannon’s School for Orphaned and Afflicted Girls Presents: “Jane Eyre”
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.)
4 thoughts on “Mrs. Ballyshannon’s School for Orphaned and Afflicted Girls Presents: “Jane Eyre””
Dave Adler is the man behind the sound design. Thank you for alovely review
Thanks Marina. He’s not mentioned in the program, so I presumed the sound design was done by one of the three who were.
There are two things I find disconcerting about the arts nowadays. One is that many of us have become very well trained consumers of the arts. We know perfection and are keenly able to point out imperfections. And we pay good money to have them not be be there. Whether it’s a movie, a song, a video, a picture or a play, we know how they’re done and we know how they should be done. And even though I can spot flaws and failings a mile away, as well as the best of them, I am learning to not indulge myself too much. I’ve tried to create good art myself, and have found that even achieving mediocrity requires great effort. And so I’ve come to be turned off by knit picking criticisms of other people’s hard work.
The other thing about the arts these days that I find disconcerting is that it’s almost the norm now that artists of all kinds have a bottomless pit of creative and thoughtful ideas about life to present to us, but very rarely are they able to present us with situations of conflict and give us equally creative, thoughtful and workable, let alone satisfying resolutions. Often the ending of a conflict between people, or the conflict within a character is at best left ambiguous, without comment, or at worst we are shown how bad behavior brings bad consequences and someone, or everyone dramatically and spectacularly dies in the end.
I more than suppose this a postmodern mindset. Although there may be a narrative going on we don’t really know where it’s going, or if it’s really going anywhere anyway and so we’re unable to end our stories. As if maybe there are no resolutions. Just endless creative presentations about cruel justice and how ironic and funny life can be.
“Mrs. Ballyshannon’s School for Orphaned and Afflicted Girls Presents Jane Eyre” is a recent London example of this phenomenon and I was able to attend the final performance. In this play we are presented with an array of young girls and one young man who are physically, intellectually and emotionally damaged beyond repair. They are tasked with being actors in a theatrical presentation of Jane Eyre. The purpose being the Head Mistress’ attempt to make them attractive to potential parents. We witness the final dress rehearsal. The entertainment, the drama and humor we enjoy is these people’s inability to pretend to be people they aren’t. At least part of the problem that landed this tragic group in Mrs. Ballyshannon’s School in the first place is their inability to adequately separate fact and fiction. In other words, they can’t “act”. They are constantly challenged to find ways around not being able to physically or personally do what their characters require of them. Actors speak their lines to other actors who can’t respond in character and so take the lines personally. A crippled actor on crutches is required to dance, and can’t. And one wonderful display of this is when the sole male character Hans can’t speak the lines of his “character” Rochester without constantly interrupting himself to remind us that it is his character and not him who is saying these things. That this is not how he himself really feels. It is all very engaging and entertaining.
The layering of a play about a play about a book being performed by people who can only display their own real stories was a complex undertaking and was by and large successfully executed. The dialogue is very well written, and all the actors are “in character” all the time. This was one of the best features of the play. At any given time you could focus on any number of the nine actors on stage and be engaged. Even while interacting with each other, everyone was in their own world. This gave the play an underlying sense of chaos and and loneliness as it really would have been. And at the time this was very believable and impressive to watch.
Then, the story, and the story within it abruptly concluded when the characters, no wait, the actors… whatever, when everyone lost complete control of candles being used as props and both projects went up in flames. During all this the most “insane” character, who was caged during most of the story, having been set free, tears off her clothes and leaps into the arms of the wheel chair bound “director”. (Yes, even the Head Mistress, Mrs. Ballyshannon herself, was crippled and afflicted). Lights out.
I left the theater to the recorded sounds of a flaming inferno and went back to my real life. And what was my take away? I suppose I could just give kudos for a good production and move on. Or I suppose I could analyze it all in an art context, with some thoughtful criticism of oppressive Victorian morality and consider how and if the 21st century world has changed in any significant way. Or something along those lines. But the play itself, in true postmodern fashion, offered me no comment or
even a potentially workable conclusion.
And that’s my problem. I have to see the play not only in it’s own artistic context, but in the larger context of the purpose of art in my life. I have, quite frankly, partaken of far too much art that presents a picture of life to me with the postmodern message “No comment” as a conclusion. That’s not enough anymore. It’s an all too conventional cop out, and has become tedious. Much great art does more than that and much good art at least tries. Don’t get me wrong. This play was one of the best written and performed plays I have ever seen in London. And it lingered with me, but for the wrong reasons.
Because these days, when I partake of art and think about it on the way home, I look for a take away that’s worth taking away. And forgive me if I’m knit picking, but once again, it just wasn’t there.
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