May 25, 2019

‘Brontë’ performance draws a large crowd

Three sisters who lived more than 150 years ago in a remote parsonage in the United Kingdom remain to this day the most prolific siblings in English literature and they endure as an inspiration to countless authors, playwrights and filmmakers.

Last Friday, Fresno State’s University Theatre began performing Polly Teale’s “Brontë,” originally produced in 2005 by Teale’s Shared Experience group in the U.K.

Saturday night’s performance, to an almost-full house at the Dennis & Cheryl Woods Theatre in the Speech Arts building, began at 8p.m. with the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, describing the tough living conditions of 1840’s England, where few could read, let alone write.

Most people led impoverished and short lives. Women were expected to tend to the house and raise children.

Teale’s play uses expressionist lighting, dance, sound and acting to intermix characters and scenes from the Brontë sisters’ books — “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte; “Wuthering Heights” by Emily; “Agnes Grey” by Anne — with the real-life events of the Brontë family, including father Patrick and brother Branwell.

A theme running throughout the play is symbolized by a hawk puppet, which visits and guides Emily. The Hawk Puppeteer is played by graduate student Alyssa Joy Garvin, who also appears as Cathy from “Wuthering Heights” and Bertha from “Jane Eyre.”

As the women struggle to write their novels, get them published and be accepted in the male world of literature, they also must struggle to support their brother, Branwell, as he descends from failure to alcoholism.  The production is directed and choreographed by Ruth Griffin, with very effective use of music and lighting throughout. The effects help shape the mood and guide the audience through the expressionistic intricacies of the play’s use of scenes from the novels, flashbacks and the real and current lives of the sisters.

This is a play that depends upon the acting ensemble for it to be effective and moving. There are many entrances, exits and several multiple roles, which were deftly performed by all.

Matthew Schlitz played a notable role of father Patrick Brontë, Mr. Brocklehurst and Rochester (both from “Jane Eyre”), Mr. Heger (Charlotte’s French tutor), and Arthur Bell Nicholls, with a variety of accents and costume changes that was truly masterful.

Also of note were Aaron McGee, in the roles of failed brother Branwell, Heathcliff (from “Wuthering Heights”) and Arthur Huntington (from Anne’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”).

Huntington sparked in every scene he was in, and Kia Vassiliades as middle sister Emily, whose spirited performance as well as striking make-up change in the last scenes were captivating.

Both Mr. McGee and Ms. Vassiliades are Theatre Arts Scholarship recipients.

Brontë runs through March 24. Ticket discounts are available for students and seniors.

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