by Paul Ledoux (adapted from Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery)
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, November 2001
When you hear about the movie version of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, you immediately wonder, well, is this happening because someone saw a movie lurking at the heart of the book, aching to be made, or because someone thought, "hey, this is a brand that will sell"? Similarly, when you see a dramatization of The Hobbit or Anne of Green Gables, you wonder whether we need a stage version -- whether putting Bilbo or Anne on the stage will give us a chance to see this character and this world in a new way.
I don't mean to suggest here that we need to apply lie detectors to writers and producers to ascertain just what their real motives are. After all, cynical or mercenary motives often produce great art, and sincere intentions to bring great texts to the attention of wider audiences as often produce manipulative, trivial entertainments. We can only prove this pudding one way.
So, on the way in to the theatre I had the question in the back of my mind: what will another adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic novel add to, or how might it change and deepen, what we've already had from the book, the musical, and the made-for-TV movie? I was hoping -- this has happened before -- to discover some new way to understand and value Anne Shirley and her familiar world, an approach that would render what had become comfortable and predictable new and wonderful again.
The set, by Michael Gianfrancesco, was promising: we saw almost nothing but silhouetted bare birch trees, their bark a hint of print, and an occasional drifting of fog from the side of the stage. "Bare trees? Fog?" I thought. Nothing about the versions of Anne I know suggests winter or fog: Anne is a book, and play, and a film, of sunlight on blossoms, of shimmering blue lakes, of fields red in spring and green in summer. Similarly, the opening scene -- not the orphan sitting with desperate hopefulness at the train station, but the folks of Avonlea waiting for Anne to arrive back from Charlottetown with her scholarship and her prospects -- suggested that maybe we might encounter a different take on the story.
Paul Ledoux's script, however, turns out to have nothing much new to say about Anne. Disappointingly, it falls between the two stools which so many adaptations miss: it doesn't become independent of the previous experience (for anyone who didn't know the story, Ledoux's script would be pretty much incomprehensible), and it doesn't remain consistent with it (at important points, for reasons which are, I'm afraid, all too obvious, the book's subtleties are abandoned in favor of crude, broad, and obvious melodrama. To take one example: everyone remembers, from the book and the musical, Matthew's death. For many children, it's one of those defining moments in which the terrible, the inexplicable, happens, and you're given ways of dealing with it, in a moment of quiet confrontation. In this script, Matthew, in the midst of a house full of young women singing, and after a fulsome and sentimental speech which no Matthew I've ever encountered -- certainly not Lucy Maud Montgomery's -- could ever have been able to make, reads the news that the bank with his and Marilla's money in it has failed and has a gratuitously dramatic and instantly fatal heart attack.
In other cases, scenes are included simply because they're de rigeur: it wouldn't be Anne of Green Gables if Anne didn't apologize ambiguously to Rachel Lynde, break her slate over Gilbert's head, get Diana drunk on raspberry cordial, dye her hair green. But in this case, such scenes are presented rather as clown skits than as drama. There's no buildup to the slate incident, for example, and, more important, no consequences: at the end of Act I, Gilbert says "carrot" about Anne's red hair and she slams him. Blackout.
Even more questionable, perhaps, is the raspberry cordial scene, which involves not only Anne and Diana, but Josie Pye and Ruby Gillis as well, and a clear suggestion that it's the evil Josie Pye who is responsible for substituting homemade wine for raspberry cordial. Further, the scene is coarsened by being abbreviated: Diana guzzles a quart or so of red liquid, falls off her chair, and races offstage to be sick.
In general, then, the technique of adaptation seems to be to broaden, coarsen, and simplify. Scenes occur without having been built up to, and events disappear without trace, in order to hit the high spots of the traditional story.
Accordingly, director Patricia Vanstone seems to have chosen to adopt a sort of commedia dell'arte style of exaggerated performance, encouraging everyone to play everything over the top. Diana, Josie, Ruby and Gilbert race on and off stage waving branches and giggling (and, in the process, rather cleverly changing scenes and moving props) to simulate carefree childhood on the Island. Almost everyone's speeches are played at what seems a deliberately stylized pitch of intensity and emotion. And in fact, it's difficult to imagine how to play this script otherwise. Lines like "Oh, Diana, do you really mean it? do you really mean it?" may read acceptably in a book; on stage, however, they require a buildup of emotion -- or else they become, as they do here, simply more overheated rhetoric. And lines like Gilbert's "I don't know what to make of that girl entirely" pose challenges that I can't imagine meeting.
In the face of this, the TNB company gives the production a gallant and resourceful try. I can't imagine anyone doing better with the roles of Matthew and Marilla than Lee J. Campbell and Janet Amos: old pros with powerful stage presence and admirable control, both were islands of stability in the general wash of hysteria, regularly bringing us to care about them. Even at the heights of melodrama Amos brought restraint and discipline to her Marilla, and Campell's Matthew almost managed to carry off the utterly uncharacteristic effusions of love (he's much better as the Matthew who, in the words of the musical's song, "can't find the words," than he is as the one who has no trouble finding them at all) and the testy, contemptuous dismissal of the warning from Rachel Lynde about the bank.
Kelly O'Neill brought to her Anne a wonderfully warm, mobile face and a fine physical control. If she was far more believable as the older Anne, back from Charlottetown, her timing and vivacity carried off scenes like the grotesquely exaggerated apology to Rachel Lynde as well as I can imagine, and in spite of the fact that this script doesn't give us much to like in Anne, makes her pretty sympathetic, mainly with her body language and her responsive expresssions.
Other members of the cast -- Martha Irving as Rachel Lynde, Tessa McKim as Josie, Christian Barry as Gilbert, and Raquel Duffy as Diana, Jen MacDowell as Ruby Gillis (a character who seems to have been brought forward in this version as a practical convenience) -- were as resourceful as we could hope in coping with the fact that each character is a really a cartoonish stereotype, reacting in pretty much the same way to everything: Tessa with a sour, screwed-up face and a hissy viciousness; Diana with slack-jawed amazement at Anne's brilliance, Gilbert with a jokey 14-year old boy's faux-innocence, Mrs. Lynde with ear-splitting sanctimoniousness, Ruby with whatever is needed to get the action moving along.
Had the production been a musical, all this simplification might well have been perfectly fine; musicals are licensed to broaden and simplify, to present the good, familiar scenes without much in the way of explanation, depth or understanding. In many ways, this version of Anne felt like a musical which inexplicably didn't have any songs.
It had no fog, either. The fog machine (which we were considerately warned about by signs at the door) was cranked up only before the play began, and again before the second act. What it was about escapes me.
As always, the pre-Christmas show at Theatre New Brunswick is a golden opportunity to attract the audiences of the future to live theatre. Traditionally, families attend, and there were lots of children in the opening night audience. I heard a great deal of children's laughter during the first act, and far less during the second. I hope the kids who drifted away will give theatre another chance, and I hope the ones who loved the show -- and they were clearly there -- will keep coming to theatre, and learn that it doesn't always have to try to compete with the overwhelming assault on your senses mounted by the movies and video games.