Theatre Calgary’s adaptation of The Scarlet Letter leaves more questions than answers

The latest of Caroline Russell-King’s postcard reviews looks at The Scarlet Letter, an adaptation of the novel presented by Theatre Calgary.

Show: The Scarlet Letter.

Playwright(s): Adapted by Phyllis Nagy, based on the 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Production company/theatre space: Theatre Calgary, Max Bell Theatre, Arts Commons.

Length: Two acts (two hours, one intermission).

Genre(s): Drama.

Premise: The mother of a daughter born as a result of adultery stands up to the idea of  puritanical sin, which results in her expulsion from the community and failed repentance.

Why this play? Why now?: The program notes tell us that “slot 5” was programmed after the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the rise of the “Me Too” movement. A play was wanted for the 45+ women who love to read, and women’s roles were needed to balance out the number of male roles in the season. I’m not sure how a play about a “fallen woman” resonates today.

Curiosities: As I was leaving the theatre I passed by three couples, all strangers, and I heard such queries that began with, “Why did he … ?,” “Explain to me why …,” and, “What happened … ?” I mused that the “A” could have stood for Answers? 

Notable lines: “I should have drowned her at birth.”

Notable writing: Again the program notes tell us this “this is not an easy text” – I would concur.

Notable performances: Charlie Gallant seems to be caught up in a melodrama, while Paul Cowling delivers a performance that is naturalistic of the period and Kristen Padayas seems to be in a modern drama. (And despite his bent legs and dromedary jacket, Chris Hunt seems underserving of all the ugly references.)

Notable design/production: The set is an incongruous mix of modern and naturalistic materials like real dirt (a metaphor for when people are clean and dirty?) and bright white neon lights. The sound design seems to steal focus rather than play a supporting part.

Notable direction: Micheline Chevrier, when talking of play-building, once said, “It takes time to build a cathedral.” Maybe with more time the stand-and-deliver staccato pronouncements would have evolved or maybe not. I’m not sure all the humour was intentional in places.

One reason to see this show: Aficionados of the original source material will no doubt enjoy a dirt-filled excavation into the original story about the fictional Hester Prynne.

(Photo, from left to right, Heather Pattengale as Hester Prynne, Kristen Padayas as Pearl, and Charlie Gallant as Arthur Dimmesdale.  Photo courtesy Trudie Lee.)

The Scarlet Letter runs at the Max Bell Theatre until March 23.

Caroline Russell-King is a playwright, dramaturg, and instructor. She is a member of The Playwrights Guild of Canada, the Dramatist Guild of America and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You can find her work here