Stage Door Review

Little Women

Thursday, July 14, 2022

✭✭✩✩✩

by Jordi Mand, directed by Esther Jun

Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford

July 7-October 29, 2022

Mrs. March: “Conceit spoils the finest genius”

The Schulich Children’s Play at the Stratford Festival this year is Jordi Mand’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novels Little Women (1868) and one its sequel, Good Wives (1869) The running time is three hours. The audience advisory for the play states, “This performance is wonderful for families with children in all but the youngest of grades. Those in lower elementary or kindergarten may still enjoy the action, but the plot details are likely more complicated than most would enjoy”. In fact, families will have to think whether their children will enjoy seeing a woman give birth or seeing a teenaged girl die of scarlet fever on stage or understand a discussion of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

As has happened too often in the past Stratford’s “children’s play” is really aimed at adults. Although even adults will have difficulty enjoying the show since Mand’s adaptation is thoroughly unengaging, a problem compounded by a confused directorial vision, odd design choices and poor acting.

In brief, Alcott’s two novels (really one novel in two parts) concerns the coming of age of the four March sisters during the American Civil War. When the stage version opens the sisters and their beloved mother Marmee are living in genteel poverty while their father works as a chaplain for the Union Army. The four sisters are Meg aged 16, Jo aged 15, Beth aged 13 and Amy 12. Meg is considered the beauty of the family and works as a governess for a wealthy family. Jo, short for Josephine, writes stories and plays for the family but longs to be a real published writer. Beth is extremely shy but is a gifted pianist. And Amy shows a talent for art but is also the vainest of the four.

The novels are episodic. Little Women covers only one year from Christmas to Christmas sometime during the Civil War in the 1860s. Good Wives begins three years after the events of Little Women and details over the next six years the passage of three of the sisters to marriage. The fate of the March sisters reflects four different outcomes for a woman of the period. Beth dies an early death. Meg marries a poor man. Amy marries a wealthy man. And Jo marries a man who will work by her side towards a common goal (though Mand suggests that the two do not marry at all).

While Alcott’s novels have an omniscient narrator, adaptor Jordi Mand has chosen to have Jo the writer serve as narrator and makes her the central character. This has both a positive and a negative effect. On the one hand, the events of the play may still be episodic but they are unified by Jo’s commentary on them and their effect on her. On the other hand, in filtering all the events through one sensibility, Mand has deprived all the characters except Jo of depth or complexity. This makes the other characters appear superficial and cartoonish and gives the entire play the atmosphere of a Classics Illustrated comic rather than an adaptation of a beloved novel.

The superficiality of Mand’s adaptation is exacerbated by Esther Jun’s clashing directorial choices and Teresa Przybylski’s peculiar design. Jun imposes three different concepts on the production none of which enlightens the work. Her first notion is the now-clichéd presentation of the action as a play-in-a-box. The first thing we see on stage in Little Women is a trunk. Jo appears in modern dress, opens the lid and out of the trunk come numerous props and many of the actors. Albert Marre used the concept of all the paraphernalia for the play coming from a trunk in the first production of Man of La Mancha in 1965, an image directors have copied ever since. Jun, however, does not actually rely on having everything necessary come from the box. Instead, as soon as a few items and actors appear, a set unit slides in from the side, cutout trees and leaves fly in from above and other actors enter from the wings.

At the very end the set piece withdraws, the trees fly up again and the actors reappear in their modern outfits only to enter the trunk. Allison Edwards-Crewe enters as Jo with a script which she places on the trunk before she exits. So we understand that Mand sees Jo as the author of the play, but why do props and actors return to the trunk? Are the actors supposed to be part of Jo’s or Edwards-Crewe’s imagination too? I would think that once Jo had created the world of Little Women it would remain out there as it has since 1868. And if the script embodies the play, what is the trunk?

The second concept Jun foists on the play is stated in the Stratford Festival season brochure: “This production takes place in present day, with 1860s period costumes”. This paradoxical remark arises because Jun has the cast appear first in contemporary dress and then through the first half of Act 1 shift from jeans and crop tops into one-piece dresses and petticoats. The notion as Jun states in her Director’s Notes is that the “little women” of the title should be seen as prototypes of modern-day “riot grrrls”.

The first problem with this is that young women of the 19th century were inhibited by legal and societal expectations, such as no need for higher education and no positions in the job market, that simply don’t pertain anymore. The second problem is that three of the four March sisters are not “riot grrrls” in petticoats at all. Beth is almost pathologically shy and does not want to go to school. All that concerns Amy and Meg is marriage, with marrying well a higher priority for Amy than pursuing her art. Jo is, no doubt, the most rebellious of the four and an outright feminist. Yet she is willing to write trashy novels for a New York publisher to earn money and needs the advice of a man, Professor Bhaer, to make her see what she should write about. She would like to see herself as making her own way in the world, but, in fact, her life’s dream is only accomplished when she inherits Plumfield Estate from her Aunt March. It’s easy to triumph as a rebel when you have a wealthy relative.

The third conceit Jun forces on the play is the attempt to make it seem like a 19th-century American imitation of the Netflix series “Bridgerton” (2020-21). “Bridgerton” is known for giving a modern spin in terms of colour-blind cast and contemporary music to its faux-Austenian stories of young people thwarted by personal and societal constraints from marrying for love instead of money.

The main difficulties in Jun’s using of a television series for a model is that it is blatant imitation and the material does not suit the treatment. “Bridgerton” is based on the modern novels of Julia Quinn (born 1970) which both satirize and revel in the women’s literature of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries. Little Women and Good Wives have no such element satirizing genre and incline rather to sentiment than satire. One of main references throughout the two Alcott novels is John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) which even provides chapter headings in the novels. This religious aspect Mand has completely excised from the play. The attempt to modernize the social dance of the period only leads to two very awkward dance scenes uncredited to any choreographer.

Given Jun’s use of conflicting directorial concepts it should not be surprising that Teresa Przybylski’s set design is also confused. In contrast to the play-in-a-box concept, Przybylski’s designs suggest a storybook come to life. It would have been helpful if Jun and Przybylski had agreed on how they visualized the play. Though Przybylski has countless brilliant set designs to her credit, her set for Little Women has fundamental flaws.

The most glaring flaw is that the March family kitchen and parlour occupies only the stage right half of the stage. Set pieces may be slid in stage left to represent other locations such as Aunt March’s home the editorial office of Mr. Dashwood – but the effect is that virtually all the most important action occurs only on stage right. It is bizarre to say the least that an experienced designer like Przybylski should create such a design and that Jun would accept it.

Besides this, Przybylski has made the March home unnaturally cramped. The Marches live in genteel poverty but that doesn’t mean they have no room for their furniture. The tiny dining table is awkward for anyone to sit at, and worst of all, a fourth of the keyboard of Beth’s piano, is covered by Jo’s desk. How can Beth use the full keyboard and how can Jo write without poking Beth in the back with her elbow?

Mand’s adaptation has flattened almost all of the characters so that they mostly can be summed up with a single adjective. Verónica Hortigüela plays Meg, but Mand seems to have forgotten to give her a personality. All Hortigüela can do is to act pleasant. Brefny Caribou gives us the one note of Beth as painfully shy even in a scene when she tells Jo she is dying. In contrast Caribou is ebullient and vain as the wealthy Sallie Gardiner. Lindsay Wu is petulant and vain as Amy but is similarly petulant and vain as the wealthy Annie Moffatt. Amy is supposed to show some maturity when we see her later in Europe, but Wu simply gives us a vain young woman who is less petulant.

Allison Edwards-Crewe is central to the play as Jo, who sinks within the action but is also the narrator and the bridge between the audience and the world of the play. Jo is hot-headed but Edwards-Crewe uses the same style of breathless over-emphasis to signify excitement, anger, impatience, sadness or happiness. It’s not long before this one-size-fits-all tone becomes tiresome. How odd it is that Edwards-Crewe brings more subtlety to her small role of Diana in All’s Well That Ends Well this year than in her large role as Jo in Little Women.

Mand at least places Marmee in enough different situations that Irene Poole can present her as an intelligent woman with a wide range of emotions and the only member of the March household who doesn’t fall into caricature. Mand also seems to have fleshed out Laurie Laurence more than the other characters, though Richard Lam seems like a lost boy when young and a lost young man when older. John Koensgen, on the other hand, ably distinguishes between the kindly James Laurence and the hard-nosed Mr. Dashwood. Mand strangely gives Rylan Wilkie nothing to say as long-missing Mr. March, so Wilkie has to focus on his other role as Professor Bhaer, the German-immigrant who teaches Jo to trust herself. Wilkie’s calmness as Bhaer is a welcome respite from Edwards-Crewe’s excitability, but when he massacres Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”, we doubt how that can be Bhaer’s favourite poem.

In the contest for worst performance Stephen Jackman-Torkoff wins the prize for overacting as John Brooke, who certainly doesn’t seem old enough or stable enough to be Laurie’s tutor. Marion Adler, however, wins the prize for worst caricature of an old woman as Aunt March and what sort of accent she uses as Jo’s New York landlady Mrs. Kirke is a mystery.

Many people will enjoy Little Women just because they will get the chance to see their favourite characters on stage. People with no previous connection to the novel may wonder what all the fuss is about. There are so many acclaimed film adaptations available from George Cukor’s 1933 version with Katherine Hepburn as Jo to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version with Saoirse Ronan as Jo, that it would be hard for a family to justify the time and expense needed to see the present stage adaptation, marred as it is in so many ways.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Lindsay Wu as Amy, Brefny Caribou as Beth, Allison Edwards-Crewe as Jo and Verónica Hortigüela as Meg; Irene Poole as Marmee with Lindsay Wu as Amy, Verónica Hortigüela as Meg, Allison Edwards-Crewe as Jo and Brefney Caribou as Beth; John Koensgen as Mr. Laurence, Richard Lam as Laurie, Lindsay Wu as Amy, Brefney Caribou as Beth, Verónica Hortigüela as Meg, Irene Poole as Marmee and Allison Edwards-Crewe as Jo; Allison Edwards-Crewe as Jo. © 2022 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.