When Available Light Theatre premiered its stage adaptation of Jane Eyre earlier this year, it gave me a new appreciation for Charlotte Bronte’s original novel.
When Shadowbox Live premiered its dance adaptation of Wuthering Heights last week, it gave me a new appreciation for Katy Psenicka’s choreography. It also reminded me that, when she’s not being one of the funniest people who ever graced the Shadowbox stage, Amy Lay is a fine dancer.
As for Emily Bronte’s novel, it’s almost a no-show. Titled Madness & Lust, the new work focuses on the Victorian tale’s torrid emotions without explaining the characters who experience them.
We surmise that young Catherine (Lay) and Heathcliff (JT Walker III) are devoted to each other, but Wuthering Heights virgins will have no idea why. Since Heathcliff spends most of his time wallowing in self-pity and generally acting like a jerk, it’s particularly hard to figure out what Catherine sees in him.
For the many viewers who haven’t read the novel—or who read it too long ago to remember the details—Catherine and Heathcliff’s tortured relationship would make more sense if Shadowbox offered a prologue. The opening could explain that Heathcliff was an orphan who was rescued by Catherine’s father and raised alongside her and her brother, Hindley, on their farm in northern England. It could further reveal that things went sour for Heathcliff after Hindley inherited the farm and began treating him like a servant.
On the other hand, such a prologue wouldn’t explain why Heathcliff and the others deliver their few lines of dialogue in American English. Nor would it explain why they dance to music that consists of modern rock tunes.
Director Stev Guyer establishes the atmosphere of the English moors with the sound of wind blowing over a desolate landscape, and Linda Mullin’s costume designs suggest the tale’s time period (1783-1801) without restricting the dancers’ movements. But the illusion fades as soon as the characters begin speaking or the singers begin singing.
Since Shadowbox is using little more than the outline of the original tale, it could have avoided the jarring juxtaposition by simply updating the action to modern times. At any rate, it’s hard to complain about the choice of songs, which represent artists ranging from Radiohead to k.d. lang and the Smiths and which generally fit the emotions of their corresponding scenes.
Thanks to the strength of Psenicka’s choreography and the performances of the singers and dancers, Madness & Lust does have several moments in which the music and dance transcend time and place. Particularly impressive are the varied ways in which sexual attraction is acted out in numbers involving Catherine, Heathcliff and/or Edgar (Andy Ankrom), the neighboring landowner who takes a fancy to her.
Some of the group numbers express more complex situations and emotions. Among them is the Act 1 capper, which dramatizes both the new attraction Edgar’s sister (Psenicka) feels toward Heathcliff and the jealousy Heathcliff feels toward Edgar. Scott Aldridge’s lighting augments the mood established by Wedding Reception, a jazzy instrumental composed by Shadowbox’s Matthew Hahn, and The Kill, a 30 Seconds to Mars tune sung by Leah Haviland and Julie Klein.
At times like these, Madness & Lust should appeal to just about everyone, even if they don’t understand why Heathcliff is acting like such a jerk.
Madness and Lust continues through Nov. 14 at Shadowbox Live, 503 N. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students, seniors (55-plus) and active military personnel. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.