"The Four Sisters"
The four March sisters have returned to the stage in the latest of a succession of stage, TV, film, and even opera adaptations of Louisa May Alcot’s 1868/1869 novel, Little Women. Loosely based on Alcott’s own family during and soon after the Civil War, the book was originally written for girls but quickly became a bestseller, still beloved by both adults and children. In 1919, the character of Jo March helped ignite the career of the great actress Katherine Cornell; it also provided a still glowing film role for the young Katharine Hepburn in 1933.
Little Women’s latest incarnation arrives via what has become a reliable part of recent theatre seasons, an adaptation by actress/playwright Kate Hamill of classic 19th-century novels, in which she also plays a major role. Each adaptation enjoys playing with theatrical conventions, stays close enough to its source so that it remains clearly recognizable, takes considerable dramatic liberties, seeks opportunities for farcical overstatement, and finds contemporary feminist relevancies to exploit.
|Kate Hamill, Carmen Zilles, Ellen Harvey, Paola Sanchez Abreu, Kristolyn Lloyd. Photo: Matt Ross.|
In Little Women, Hamill is concerned with the gender-based expectations of its female characters. The March sisters and their mother, Marmee (Megan Byrne, standing in for Maria Elena Ramirez at the performance I saw) are waiting out the war in their New England home while father is away with the Union Army. Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu), unbearably shy, stays indoors in her nightgown throughout, and dies young. Meg (Hamill) marries John Brooks [sic] (Michael Crane), the tutor of Laurie (Nate Mann), the wealthy boy next door, and has twins. Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd) is a would-be writer who struggles with her conventional gender-identity. And Amy (Carmen Zilles), the youngest, has artistic aspirations in Alcott but is notable here mainly as a serial malapropist, Jo even keeping a record of her mistakes (like “purist” for “puerile”).
|Nate Mann, Kristolyn Lloyd. Photo: Matt Ross.|
Hamill’s rather shallow characters hew roughly to what Alcott provided in multiple dimensions; none can be taken as a literal version of their originals. Hamill specifically dismisses the idea of creating museum replicas of her sources. This allows her to interject overtly contemporary commentary and business that stick out like sore thumbs: a male authority figure slaps a woman’s behind, a woman decries the word “hysterical” to describe her behavior, and so on.
|Kristolyn Lloyd, Paola Sanchez Lloyd. Photo: Matt Ross.|
Her focus, of course, is on Jo, the emerging writer, played according to Hamill’s demand for inclusive casting, by African-American actress Lloyd, who turns in a feisty performance. This Jo is a woman determined to stand apart from the gender-based role society demands. Taking the book’s emphasis on Jo’s tomboyish behavior one step further, she appears mainly in male garb, including a top hat, suggesting what some may see as incipient queerness, especially when she rejects the proposal of Laurie. (He himself is given a momentary expression of gender confusion although he ends up with Amy.) Alcott’s Jo, of course, eventually marries Professor Bhaer, her German tutor, and lives happily ever after. Bhaer, however, is omitted from Hamill’s version, leaving you to ponder a rather cloudy vision of Jo’s fate.
|Kate Hamill, Kristolyn Lloyd, Maria Elena Ramirez, Paola Sanchez Abreau, Carmen Zilles. Photo: Matt Ross.|
I’ve seen three other Hamill adaptations, two based on Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and one based on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. While the latter two had their strong points, none came close to the level of theatrical delight present in Sense and Sensibility. Ditto Little Women, which, like Pride and Prejudice, is produced by Primary Stages.
|Kate Hamill, Michael Crane. Photo: Matt Ross.|
As with Hamill’s other works, Little Women is written to be staged within a simple, adaptable setting (well realized by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams), relying on easily movable period furnishings, shifted by the actors, to suggest changing locales, and generalized period costumes (capably designed by Valérie Thérèse Bart) that provide a sense of the times. MacAdams provides a bilevel wooden set, placed against the Cherry Lane Theatre’s exposed brick stage wall. A writing desk is on one side of the upper platform, a bed (where poor Beth passes) on the other.
|Nate Mann, Kate Hamill, Kristolyn Lloyd. Photo: Matt Ross.|
Sarna Lapine’s direction keeps things flowing crisply but allows heightened acting to mingle with more realistic expression, providing a number of styles. She does what she can to emphasize the script’s playacting routines, including too many mock duels with wooden swords, around which much of the action transpires. Life in the March household is made to seem a never-ending world of escapist fantasy conjured up by Jo’s childishly melodramatic imagination.
|Paola Sanchez Abreu, Ellen Harvey, John Lenartz, Kate Hamill, Kristolyn Lloyd, Nate Mann. Photo: Matt Ross.|
This production is less prone to the kind of theatrical foolery that marked much of the other Hamill plays. It avoids such tired tropes as bearded men playing women with overstated costumes and wigs. Nevertheless, in Act One of this two-hour, two-act play, the spirited tone and pace means a loss of pathos in those scenes when it should be paramount.
|Ellen Harvey, Kate Hamill, Kristolyn Lloyd. Photo: Matt Ross.|
Not all comical exaggeration is absent, however, as we still have some cartoonish touches, like the farcically shrieky Mrs. Mingott (Ellen Harvey, who also plays Hannah, the servant). I kind of enjoyed the squawky parrot, though, played by Michael Crane with birdlike movements and feathers in his hair. My plus-one, however, couldn’t stop complaining afterward about how annoying this bird bit was.
Hamill’s Little Women fails to justify the effort required for its new dramatization. It neither succeeds as a faithful representation of the novel nor as a significant contribution to the dramatic literature of identity issues. Like its depiction of Jo, it’s neither one thing nor the other.
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through June 29