Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Brontë Sister House Party
Also see Richard's review of Locked Ward
The authors, these women in the Brontë family (and dead now, there can be no mistake about that), seemed to have no shortage of hyper-rationality. Maybe that's why this is such a terrific comedy, set in the afterlife: the blades of truth spin around like some giant, ghostly Cuisinart in Brontë Sister House Party at the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE). It's pretty radically funny.
In this highly admirable world premiere by Courtney Bailey, we are also reminded that the youngest-born Anne was a successful poet and novelist as well. Anne (played in this relentless satire by Cassidy Flynn) was likewise focused on serious, real-life problems in her own successful book, "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall." On the face of it, radical honesty would not seem to have been one of their big problem areas. Tuberculosis? Yes! But not a soul-pilfering delusion.
However, "radical honesty" turns out to be a key tool for these great writers, in escaping an afterlife of being stuck in a time loop, to instead, in effect, become as blazingly real as the women they wrote about and find their own eternal peace. For the audience, it's a two hour romp through Purgatory, in which the siblings must all work together to end an existential curse: condemned to throw a wild party every night for eternity, even though they are writers and (needless to say) not party people at all. Somehow, their escape will involve freeing themselves from their easy-to-spot lies. And eventually, the more elusive ones as well.
It's a crazy new play that conjures up the modern singer Kate Bush (soulful LaWanda Jackson), following a break-in to Purgatory, by two of the Brontë sisters' own fictional characters. The Brontë girls were trying to summon the spirit of billionaire Jeff Bezos for some much-needed afterlife counseling and were surprised to get an entirely different shipment in error. But Kate Bush will not go gently into that easily resealable envelope.
I loved it, and the director now known solely by their last name, Keating, easily manages the mayhem of some very silly, eternally condemned people. The play engages us in a way that Vonnegut or Shaw or Sartre would have admired, boldly thrusting disparate, effervescent improbabilities together for the sake of a new revelation.
Brontë Sister House Party takes an anguishing twist into "cancel culture" near the end of Act I, as the stakes get raised to a nightmarish degree. As the intermission approaches, the unseen Lavender Witch, who imprisons them all in their old family house, threatens to remove all trace of the three sisters' names from literary history forever. The witch will make them unknown–cruelly attributing all their poems and novels to the hands of mere men. (This Lavender Witch character is usually represented by little more than a chime ringing occasionally off-stage.) And so they have to figure out the innermost lies of their own lives by the end of this ultimate party night. Of course you could say the same thing about half a dozen modern classic plays, that it's a long night's journey into day. But it proves to be a highly durable conceit.
There are lots of fun dance breaks, and a fabulous recitation of a short section of "Wuthering Heights" as a huge, chanteuse-style French ballad, magnificent in its all-too-brief swagger, with Bess Moynihan as Catherine Earnshaw. (She's the girl who makes a terrible choice, rejecting Heathcliff [spoiler-alert!]).
Fundamental to the Brontë sisters' comical afterlife problem here is the gradual disillusionment of their unfortunate brother Branwell (the perfectly privileged Joel Moses, bearing a faint resemblance to a famous Missouri politician). Branwell died before them, thinking he was the poet of the family and that they were all the soon-to-be-forgotten siblings. In the final few years of his actual life, these same great novelists took loving care of him in his miserable decline.
But literarily, within the show, when you listen to a read-aloud sampling of Branwell's late-Romantic poetry and also listen (now and then) to his sisters' own stark prose, lovingly recited on stage, the difference in talent is subtle and interesting. One is imitation, and the other three are all originals. And suddenly we admire the women afresh.
SATE company co-founder Rachel Tibbetts transforms herself into a grumpy Emily Brontë, who is also a bit dumpy here, a bit frowzy after five thousand parties in just as many nights. She's quite different by the end, of course, glowing in deep meaningful chatter in the wee hours of another party. Also on stage, Vicky Chen finds a fresh, believable way to express feminist outrage as Jane Eyre's doomed schoolmate Helen Burns (a young Elizabeth Taylor in the 1939 film).
Zeck Schultz was cue-for-cue perfect on the night I went, as a personification of the Alexa virtual assistant software, playing the hits for this endless party, and later playing keyboard while Ms. Jackson sings one of the most swoon-worthy songs of the mid-20th century to mark their apotheosis. And we enjoy all the excellent costumes by Liz Henning, and the shockingly complex set by Bess Moynihan.
Maggie Conroy is wonderfully stylish (as always) as Charlotte. In some alternate universe she is probably also headlining at the Fabulous Fox Theatre or the Muny Opera this week. She always seems like she's on a grander stage, and we are eager to accept the notion. And Mr. Flynn is impish and absolutely crucial to the steady flow of laughter, as a gender-bending Anne, who apparently had a hitherto unknown fondness for pirates.
Brontë Sister House Party, made possible in part by a commission from the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, with additional support from the Missouri Arts Council, and the Regional Arts Commission, runs through August 27, 2022 at the Chapel, 6238 Alexander Dr., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit www.satestl.org.