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Adultery by the book: Shakespeare & Co.’s The Scarlet Letter.

Taking Liberties
By James Yeara

The Scarlet Letter
Adapted by Carol Gilligan from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, directed by Tina Packer

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Nov. 3

Carol Gilligan’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter preserves the work’s irony, symbolism, allegory and romance (both upper- and lowercase), along with its psychological insights into patriarchal repression and the desire for individual self-fulfillment, and the thematic tension between Puritanism and the implied liberation of the virgin lands of America. Gilligan, an avatar of feminist sociological studies, states in the program, “The central theme in my book, The Birth of Pleasure, is the tension between love and patriarchy. This is also the theme of The Scarlet Letter.” Her adaptation makes this theme obvious. In 90 minutes and two acts, it is faithful to the literary devices and approaches that make Hawthorne a darling of English teachers.

However, there is one aspect of the novel missing, and its absence brutalizes the spirit of The Scarlet Letter. Ironically, Hawthorne’s voice is missing. Hawthorne’s novel is told by a first-person narrator in the present tense, which allows the narrator to make connections to actions in the past, and to give information on the fates of the characters beyond the scope of the narrative. Such immediacy and intimacy are typically strengths of Shakespeare & Company’s Bare Bard series, but the absence of the author’s voice in this adaptation keeps the events academic, as if the audience were watching historical re-creations at Plymouth Plantation.

The results will thrill people who like their texts with a capital “T.” The Scarlet Letter plays with all the liveliness of a graduate seminar. This text begins with Hester Prynne (Jennie Israel) standing atop a six-step wooden pillory downstage center, top- and backlit so that she glows. The various Puritan women (Catherine Taylor-Williams, Mary Guzzy, Kate Holland, Tom Wells) function as a chorus, moving in goose-step stiffness while gossiping about Hester’s sentence for committing adultery. The Puritan patriarchy, symbolized by the Rev. Wilson (Dave Demke), the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (Jason Asprey) and Gov. Bellingham (Jonathan Croy), stand above Hester on the second-floor playing area, berating her and beseeching her to reveal the name of her co-adulterer. Wearing her scarlet “A” on her chest and holding her crying baby, Pearl, in a bundle of unbleached muslin, Hester refuses to name names.

The work onstage then unfolds with all the literary devices in the novel: All the settings, all the symbolism, all the character conflicts are faithfully displayed as meta-text. Hester’s chilly missing husband, Roger Chillingworth (Michael Hammond), is a walking symbol of the evils of suppression who irrepressively pushes the plot. The adaptation does play out with startling images: The set design by Judy Gailen features a two-story stage that has the grey wallboards of a saltbox, and features areas for the forest scenes and 13 grey death masks on the upstage wallboards that give the effect of being notes on a stave.

But the adaptation is clunky. It’s almost fervently faithful to the novel, but when it isn’t, it has heart failure. There’s a moment of passion in the woods between Hester and her feckless lover that has the characters deliver a textbook description of sin that drew guffaws from the audience. The line wasn’t Hawthorne’s, and it would never be said by any human in any setting outside of the artificial world of academia. The adaptation also gives Dimmesdale’s Election Day sermon while Hawthorne simply gives the reaction to the sermon itself. Here, Hawthorne was right again: Having characters state that a sermon is brilliant is surer than actually attempting to write a brilliant sermon.

Additionally, Gilligan has tacked on an epilogue for Pearl (Kate Holland), Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s seemingly developmentally challenged love child, in which she tells us that she’s grown up to teach comparative religion at an Italian university. In this future, she is married to a character played by the actor who played her father 30 seconds before. While this new paradigm of male/female love relationships creates a joke that might have seemed earned and not self-indulgent, Hawthorne didn’t write it, and the rabbit hole you’d have to follow to justify Pearl marrying her father’s image isn’t one I’d squeeze through willingly. Such artifice makes this Scarlet Letter a work to be analyzed and footnoted, not a play to be watched and enjoyed.

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