Contributions from an adult Pearl, daughter of shamed Puritan Hester Prynne, are part of a re-imagined "The Scarlet Letter" by Naomi Iizuka at Seattle's Intiman Theatre.
If you are among the multitudes who read “The Scarlet Letter” in school, don’t expect that “Scarlet Letter” on stage at the Intiman Theatre.
Naomi Iizuka’s 70-minute, world-premiere adaptation of the 1850 novel depicts central incidents from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic study of sin, guilt and redemption in Puritan New England.
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The play is still the story of shamed adulteress Hester Prynne (played by Zabryna Guevara). But by clipping short Hester’s journey, to focus more on her daughter, Pearl, Iizuka’s “Scarlet Letter” is so slender and underdeveloped, it’s nearly anorexic.
One can appreciate the sleekly beautiful visual scheme conjured by director Lear deBessonet, with designers Peter Ksander (sets) and Justin Townsend (lighting), and Todd Reynolds’ moody avant-folk score played by solo violinist Emily Holden. But they don’t add much flesh to the bones, or bolster the notion of a “Scarlet Letter” as a therapeutic mother-daughter drama.
Iizuka inserts an adult Pearl (Renata Friedman) to narrate the play. As she tries to come to grips with her, yes, dysfunctional youth, Pearl wafts through the past, starting with the famous fallen-woman image of Hester perched above the Boston, Mass., town square, babe in arms and the “Scarlet A” on her chest.
As in the book, Hester won’t give in to pressure to name local minister Dimmesdale (Frank Boyd) as her child’s father, nor will the guilt-racked reverend out himself. Then Hester’s long-absent husband Chillingworth (R. Hamilton Wright) turns up, figures it out and passions boil over.
Light on action and heavy on philosophical rumination, the novel challenges any adapter. But Iizuka misses an opportunity to make Hester more compelling by leaving out her long campaign to regain respect and moral stature. Instead, we have numerous tedious verbal clashes between the adult Pearl, Hester and little Pearl (talented middle-schooler Izabel Mar), arguing in dialogue that veers toward psychobabble.
“I am the part of you that you don’t want to see!” Pearl wails, assailing Hester’s “choices.” Choices? In Puritan Boston? They were rather limited for a renegade female in Puritan society, Hester points out.
That society is not evoked much here; the place and time are kept vague. And Frances Kenny’s costumes for Hester and big Pearl are a century or two apart — to what purpose?
Given some rather trite dialogue (so rare for the usually artful and poetic Iizuka), the acting gets shrill — though there is some measured, shaded work by Wright and Boyd.
The two-man chorus of Jose J. Gonzales and Mark Anders is underutilized, mainly appearing as town fathers who dryly debate how to handle the “fallen woman” and “wild child” problem.
It’s hard to invest emotionally in the piece. But it’s easy to be captivated by the grove of stately white birch trees in Ksander’s transformative set, the way the stage and background keep changing colors and dimensions, the electroacoustic violin voicings.
These are exquisite wrappings for a disappointingly meager package.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org