Monday, November 23, 2009

review of *The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie*

at EWU; seen on closing night, Nov. 21

Director Sara Goff's production was impressive and impressively acted.
Don McLaughlin (credited as a "scenographer') designed a set that was half classroom, half art museum. Actually, imagine the corner of a cloister, a classroom and an artist's studio arrayed across the forestage, with stairs, a ramp and what looked like an art museum (with a neutral playing space, but underneath an ornate archway) across the upstage area. Lots of gilt frames; spotlights to (literally) highlight the pictures (from Giotto to Mussolini) whenever they were mentioned in the script. Elegance, propriety. It was impressive from the moment you walked in.
One of the most striking differences between Spokane in the 2000s and Edinburgh in the 1930s was the assumption (then) that art and literature were not only worthy of study but actually exciting.
(Judging from their intermission behavior, the Eastern undergrads sitting near Bobo were more interested in texting to find out parties' locations and football scores than they were any of the issues raised by the Spark-Allen narrative. Also, it's really hard to still and pay attention for such a long time. Nothing, really, to really occupy your mind.)
Molly Ovens made an impressive Brodie: shriek-voiced for emphasis, arms spread wide to embrace life, head erect and posture correct to convey self-confidence as she imposed values on her girls for the vicarious thrill of it.
(I kept thinking of Gregers Werle, the do-gooder in Ibsen's Wild Duck: convinced that she is shaping lives for the better, Miss Brodie is actually making matters worse.)
Ovens, a senior theater major, has the goods: rebellious, convinced she's the right educator in the right place, alluring but repressed, unpredictable, mentioning — with a little self-satisfied smirk in her voice — the little nerdy things that those who love the art tend to pepper their conversation with (just so others will know how cultured they are).
As the artist-love interest who's a little too interested (especially for a married man) in having affairs and ogling schoolgirls, Joel Chiswell properly combined creepy with principled. And as Sandy the rebel, Lenea Tomoson didn't tip her hand too early, then rose to the challenge impressively for the final face-off with (and put-down of) her teacher.
There was very little, if any of the drop-off you sometimes find in college casts -- this was well acted from the schoolgirls to the faculty.
Miss Brodie is a flawed, fascinating character: an inspiring teacher who makes a lot of bad choices; a woman too self-pitying (because of her lover's wartime death) to risk venturing real love anymore -- so she "takes it out on"/imposes romantic idealism on her young charge. She's a puppet-mistress whose understanding of life is cracked.
Ironically, she defines education to the school's headmistress not as intrusion into students' minds, or an imposition of ideas upon them, but instead as a drawing-out of what already resides in the students' minds ... and then proceeds to act in an exactly contradictory way.
(I've probably misunderstood much of it -- but that's the joy. Goff's production was so good, I wanted to be able to discuss the experience afterwards with someone.)
The Scots accents seemed credible to me, though diction sometimes suffered. 
The sense of sexual repression was strong but subtle. 
Interesting to observe how both Jenny and Sandy, the schoolgirls, came to regard themselves as above morality (mimicking their teacher -- a dangerous stance). 
I should have known but didn't until just now that Muriel Spark and Jay Presson Allen both died in 2006 (both in their 80s) and that Allen revised her 1966 script, so there are two versions. From a few details in reviews, I'm inferring that the EWU production used the earlier, original script.
EWU has Dec. 1 auditions for Romeo and Juliet, followed by a spring production of John Cariani's Almost, Maine.

[ photo: Maggie Smith, who played Miss Brodie in the movie, as a different teacher at a different British school]

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