THEATER REVIEW: Actors’ Ensemble adapts, and adapts to, James’ classic for the stage

“Washington Square” / Spencertown Academy

HENRY JAMES SPOKE of “life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection.” Actors’ Ensemble has gone on a three-year binge of discrimination and selection with James’ novel “Washington Square.”

With possibly less pure motivation, others have done it a number of times before, resulting in, most notably, the play and film-versions called “The Heiress.”

It’s a great story. A plain, shy daughter of a wealthy doctor falls in love with an attractive young man whose motives are questionable. Her father sees the situation accurately and, with great difficulty, kills the relationship. (Sorry about that summary. James does not lend himself to twitter-treat.)

The author’s long, meticulously sculptured sentences embrace a very particular world, an indoor world of physical ease and social forms, order (maintained by intelligent servants), beautiful, expensive objects, education and Puritan-tinged habits. As in Jane Austen, yearly income is ever up-front. And in the new world, an individual without good numbers was/is also marked with sin.

Although the comfortable home of Dr. Sloper and his daughter Catherine is not Downton-Abbey opulent, it offers extra virtue in that the doctor has not inherited his wealth, but earned it by way of education and hard work. And what’s left of our Puritan heritage is further appealed to with James’ refreshing sexlessness.

Though décor, architecture, and objets d’art often loom large in Henry James works, Actors’ Ensemble attempts to present him in a nearly bare playing area. In a large room chairs are arranged in a fat “U.” The actors use mostly the enclosed center space, occasionally the aisles outside the “U,” and sometimes they sit in the chairs with us, the audience. The audience spills onto Spencertown Academy’s small stage.

Does this bareness work? I’m unsure. Maybe most of AE’s audience brings with them a notion of a Jamesian or period aesthetic that fills the space; or maybe those who don’t have it in their memory bank get a better, more distilled experience of the characters. (It would be useful to talk with some bright teenagers who have not yet discovered “Portrait of a Lady,” to see how they experienced the emptiness.)

Thinking back over the author’s other novels, I am inclined to lean against it. The golden products of civilization may be too cherished by the author to excise. “The Princess Casamassimo” even invites the reader to try on the shocking notion that the beautiful fruits of wealthy civilizations may be worth the suffering and bitter oppression of the radically poor.

At the beginning of the play, and interspersed throughout, the actors take on a narrator-function to fill in backstory and perhaps to give us more of a flavor of the page. James, after all, is a beautiful creature of the page. The device often results in the characters’ talking about him- or herself in the third person. This invitation to the audience to shift gears does work, I think, though the big emotional moments are delivered most compellingly in traditional, direct dialogue.

Actors Ted Pugh and Fern Sloan are both handsome with a natural elegance that Henry James would appreciate. Sloan’s is charmingly feminine and Pugh’s is cool dignity accompanied by a rich, buttery speaking voice. His Dr. Sloper has a welcome few moments of warmth with his daughter, which are missing from the relentlessly contemptuous Sloper of “The Heiress.”

Bethany Caputo plays the psychologically abused Catherine. The actress has a raw energy that humanizes and empowers every character she takes on. (Did you see her in “Our Town” at PS 21? Or as the actress-wife of Chekhov at Space 360?) In “Washington Square,” she harnesses it to vulnerability, lets it crush her with pain, and uses it movingly when Catherine’s strong womanhood comes to the fore.

Director Craig Mathers’ staging is spacey and mobile, with characters sweeping quickly together for a moment and washing back out to perimeters. They usually whisk to new positions to start a new scene. It is effective. Mathers seems to like creating a great chasm between people talking, and it underlines the coolness and reticence of social interactions.

Chris Smith is a very believable Morris Townsend, though he makes Catherine’s mercenary lover less ambiguous than did the amazing Montgomery Clift in the film version of “The Heiress.”

I’m sure the Actors’ Ensemble folks hate the idea of comparisons with “The Heiress,” as they have entirely different goals; but it is inevitable. Furthermore, it is surprising how often they have settled on mostly the same dramatic material as did Ruth and Augustus Goetz, authors of “The Heiress.”

One may ask why, after three years, these actors are still carrying around scripts. I tried on for size the notion that it was an active choice made to emphasize the James-from-the-page aspect of their approach.

You decide. Any project these people take on is worth a look. There are performances this weekend, February 14 and 15, at 7 pm at the Spencertown Academy, Route 203 east of the Taconic State Parkway.

 

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