After a long absence from its normal venue at 602 NE Prescott, Portland Playhouse returns to newly renovated headquarters with the exciting new musical, Scarlet. The book, music, and lyrics are written by Portlander Michelle Horgan, and this is the first staged run of this new work, which is a retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 classic The Scarlet Letter.
The work is exceptional on many levels, but mainly for its humanity. Horgan adds flesh onto the old, dried-out carcasses of the original story’s characters and turns them into sympathetic, three-dimensional, interesting people. We find ourselves rooting for them. Cold, historical literary fiction transforms into hot, secret romance. That is not to say the characters still aren’t Puritans. This story wouldn’t be what it is without the social shackles that bind the community, particularly the women.
When Hester Prynne (Rebecca Teran) arrives in Massachusetts, she lands without husband. He will follow her on a later voyage. Then she moves into a cabin in the woods. She is smart, capable, and unafraid. And everyone is shocked, particularly the women. Despite the differences, Hester quickly assimilates into the community. But when she and Rev. Arthur Dimmsdale (Isaac Lamb) see each other from across that proverbial crowded room, their fates fall into the hands of something bigger than both of them.
The idea of two people falling head-over-heels in love is a theme that never got through to me in the reading of The Scarlet Letter. In fact, back in the day, the American essayist Edward Percy Whipple stated, “…the pitiless intellectual analysis of guilty souls is pushed so far that the reader…sighs for some appearance of the consoling Puritanic doctrine of Grace.”
Scarlet, thank God, is not like this. In addition to his strict pastoral duties, Dimmsdale is actually a warm and caring human being, a flawed but likable man with a sense of humor. We see him hamming it up with his buddy Samuel Maverick (“ranney”) in the local pub. They even sing a naughty song he learned in seminary. Roger Chillingsworth (Darius Pierce), the spurned husband (yes, he finally shows up), is a deeply hurt man who loved his wife for who she was. Anne Hibbins (Susannah Mars) shows herself as a rebel in her own right against the stiff-necked nonsense of Puritan men, and becomes a grandma figure for little Pearl (“Rainbows” Eva Hudson Leoniak). Pearl herself is a force to be reckoned with.
Directed by Brian Weaver and Jessica Wallenfels, Scarlet is a fresh story with a first-rate cast. It is notable for it’s beautiful and sometimes rollicking songs. I particularly enjoyed “Before You Fall for a Puritan Girl”, the love songs “In With”, “Tell Me”, and Susannah Mars’s solo “Call Me a Witch”. But it’s the theme of the play–the strength of women, their bond, and their incredible strength in a repressive society–that renders Scarlet and its predecessor timeless.
It has so captured the hearts of Portland audiences, that its run has been extended by eight performances, through April 1. Portland Playhouse is a small venue, so get your tickets now.