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The Rep’s Unnecessary Update of ‘Jane Eyre’

May. 2, 2017
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Brontë purists may be put off by the Milwaukee Rep’s attempt to update Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s taut and justifiably famous telling of the story of an orphaned waif who finds love as governess to the ward of the formidable Rochester of Thornton Hall. The charm of the original, of which this production is in short supply, lies in the meeting of two unlikely antagonists who share hidden misfortunes within an inflexible social order. 

In this streamlined, often garrulous, bare-bones production (coproduced with the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), dramatic moments are highlighted with incessant drumbeats, characters burst into song at odd moments, actors bark across stage portraying animals and attempts are made at simple choreography which seems to come out of nowhere. The most interesting rationale—and the most creative innovation of this production—is the treatment of Rochester’s insane wife, presented here as a symbolic alter ego to Jane, constantly onstage in a red room prison above the action in a gesture of ersatz Freudianism. She never speaks, only screams now and then, but as portrayed by solemn-faced Rin Allen, her carefully choreographed, formidable motions are the most interesting part of the show. 

African American actress Margaret Ivey as Jane often rises above the production and brings a surprising delicacy and charm to her role. Michael Sharon cuts an impressive figure onstage as Rochester, but his diction verges on the inaudible, and he seems ill at ease in key scenes. As Adele, Rochester’s ward, Rebecca Hirota plays the child part like a manikin on steroids and seems to pounce onstage only to disrupt serious goings-on. 

The well-appointed lesser roles are handled competently, but in the final analysis one must question writer Poley Tealle’s misguided application of the classic tale, which she professes to have loved since childhood and with which she tampered to reinvent Jane Eyre in up-to-date terms. It’s an unnecessary endeavor as the novel stands on its own. Despite some creative direction by KJ Sanchez, for this reviewer the production remains disappointing.

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