The old Water Tower in downtown Chicago looks like a 19th century gothic castle. Walking into Lookingglass Theatre Company’s version of Villette, it felt like a fitting location for a play of that era. Though, to anyone who has read the novel, and knows its parodying of the gothic ghost tale, it seems even more fitting that the building’s crenellations are mere decor, and the inside consists of twisting pipes and rotund tanks; mere function without theme.
The play we witnessed relied on strong personalities more than any gothic mystification and effect. This rendition of Charlotte Bronte’s story moves with the very modern, frank, and fourth-wall-tapping narration of Lucy Snowe (MI KANG), who makes fast friends with the audience, probably not least for her clumsy and candid humility about not speaking proper French, with which, I suspect, most of the audience could find sympathy. For our sake, Lucy magically makes all the would-be French sound like English with a charming swerve of the hand. Like that, we can all feel included. Such acknowledgments of the audience made the characters, especially our narrator, feel like welcoming tour guides or acquaintances at a new school, in this writer’s opinion.
If Lucy shows us the hallways for the first time, Ginevra Fanshawe (MO SHIPLEY) gives us our first taste of teen gossip. She perplexes Lucy with news of her simultaneous seduction of two suitors at once, one of whom, Dr. John (RONALD ROMÁN-MELÉNDEZ), Lucy herself takes a liking to. Ginevra’s fickle concern for relational commitment is troubling but draws many laughs from the audience and this writer not least. She lies on the floor and kicks her feet sporadically, calling herself a mere child and using such as an excuse for deceiving suitors.
Lookingglass Theatre Company Makes a Classic Feel Personal
A group of party-goers, whose absence the actors refute by looking through and beyond the audience, gaze at what Lucy Snowe calls the supposed queen of an art gallery, which, as it turns out, is a nude reposed on a couch, bestrewn with perfectly adequate folds of cloth, as Lucy points out. She has such an affluence of flesh and is sure for that reason to be of good society as even Dr. John can see, although at this point he much prefers his peevish Ginevra to the astonishment of Lucy and the audience.
Suggestions of uncouth art are not the only rupture of old-school French restraint and decor that occur throughout the play. Another, as readers of the novel will remember, is the rather gothic intrusion of a nun, who passes swiftly as a shadow with a haunting face of black nothingness, putting Lucy in terror and bringing the first act to an apt end. The continual comic thrust of the play hardly keeps this terror enshadowed. When the nun unmasks as Ginevra, we can’t help but smile at this surprising and gentle touch of resolution.
The bareness of the set, the beautiful studding of soft candles which hang in glass bottles from strings as stand-ins for the stars, and the wooden bookshelf, furniture, and Victorian garbs are all light touches to the ornament that is the performance itself. To this writer, adding much more in the way of set and effects would hardly immerse us more than the characters already do.
VILLETTE is a classic drama that creates an intricate social world with strong performances. Anyone who likes comical romances and a dose of gothic mystery should enjoy this play.
DEBO BALOGUN Paul Emanuel
MI KANG Lucy Snowe
HELEN JOO LEE Madame Beck
RONALD ROMÁN-MELÉNDEZ John Graham Bretton
RENÉE LOCKETT Mrs. Bretton
MO SHIPLEY Ginevra Fanshawe
SARA GMITTER Playwright
TRACY WALSH Director
YU SHIBAGAKI Scenic Design
JOHN CULBERT Lighting Design
AMANDA A HERRMANN Props Design
DEON CUSTARD Sound Design
MARA BLUMENFELD Costume Design
February 8 – April 23, 2023
Thursdays 2PM & 7PM
Saturdays 2PM & 7PM
Water Tower Water Works building
821 N Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60611.
About the Author: Anthony Neri
An avid philosophizer and Dostoevsky fanboy, Anthony spends his time ruminating on very deep moral questions. Is he a genuine old soul or does he feign as much for the mystique?--perhaps a bit of both. When he isn't tormenting himself existentially, he reads fiction and translates ancient Greek and Latin texts, all the while developing his own literary flourishes with the hope of producing his very own dazzling prose. Cliche? Maybe. But he figures everyone starts out as a cliche.