British theater director Emma Rice, whose work has delighted Bay Area audiences for over a decade, has brought her latest work to Berkeley Repertory Theater, and its as visually stunning, emotionally rich, and intricately staged as everything Rice has done previously.
First working under the auspices of the theater company Kneehigh Theatre and now under her own company, Wise Children, Emma Rice has staged multiple acclaimed theater pieces in the Bay Area — primarily at Berkeley Rep — since 2010's Brief Encounter, which ran at A.C.T. before moving to Broadway. These have included adaptations of the medieval romance Tristan and Isolde, as well as the bluegrass-y Brothers Grimm adaptation The Wild Bride, that came back for a second run by popular demand.
In addition to romantic stories, signatures of Rice's work include the use of live music, dance, kinetic movement, clowning, and puppetry in the service of these stories, and her latest adaptation of Emily Bronte's Gothic novel Wuthering Heights is no exception.
But how to tell a story so renowned for its dark spookiness and plot involving treachery, abuse, and neglect, in the form of a musical, on a live stage? It's a challenge that Rice obviously dove into headfirst, removing the framing narrator Nelly Dean and adding in her place a Greek chorus who represent the Yorkshire Moors — the landscape of forest and rugged, wind-whipped hills that serve as the backdrop to Bronte's tale.
Playing the lead Moor, Jordan Laviniere serves as the story's primary narrator, as well as counsel to several characters in the style of Greek tragedy. As Rice describes it, in her reframing, she casts Heathcliff (Liam Tamne) as the God of Revenge, Catherine (Leah Brotherhead) as the God of Chaos, and their nephew Hareton (Tama Phethean) as the God of Hope.
Each gets their moment to dominate the narrative, beginning with Catherine, but this is, through and through, a tight ensemble piece in which the majority of the dozen players are often on stage at once — moving in choreographed chaos and grace, shifting around set pieces made of reclaimed doors, windows, and wooden chairs, and providing backup sound effects and puppeteering.
Playing the roles of the neighbor Lockwood and his predecessor at Thrushcross Grange, Edgar Linton, actor Sam Archer shines as one of the most talented physical comedians, opening the story with a series of pratfalls and an animated battle with a blustering storm outside.
And playing both Isabella Linton (until her untimely death) and Little Linton, Georgia Bruce also proves her comedic and dramatic chops.
The leads, Heathcliff and Catherine, are both played by immensely talented actors in Tamne and Brotherhead, both of whom succeed in conveying the joys of their shared, half-feral childhoods in the Moors, as well as the dangerously intense, adult passion for each other that grew out of that.
There's a lot of cousins marrying cousins in Wuthering Heights, not to mention adoptive siblings Heathcliff and Catherine — hey, people didn't get out much! But at base, Rice suggests, this is a story about how love can destroy, but at its purest, when the negative forces of human existence are stripped away, there is always hope in love.
In service of the tale are a dozen original songs by Ian Ross — including the Alanis Morisette-esque, very rock-and-roll "Catherine's Curse" that comes near the end of Act 1, in which someone tosses Brotherhead a microphone and she rocks out downstage. These include some pretty tunes, like Act 1's "Bluebell," but mostly there is a theme of minor-key ennui to the score, which is appropriate enough.
The most remarkable achievement of this Wuthering Heights may be its lightness and humor. It's a testament to Rice's talents as an adapter and director that while the seriousness of Bronte's themes is not ignored, and while the characters exhibit some real pain and anguish throughout, this isn't a sad or desultory tale at all. It's a play that moves, with barely a moment's rest, from start to finish. And we're given plenty of joys, between the thrills of the actors' collective dance from scene to scene, making and remaking the shape of the stage, and the actual laughs that we're allowed to have at the characters' — and Bronte's — expense. When Catherine utters her melodramatic line "There is no happiness!", at least one member of the orchestra at last night's performance laughed out loud, and why not?
'Wuthering Heights' plays at Berkeley Rep through January 1. Find tickets here.