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Flash Review 1, 2-10: Shared Experience
Dance and Theater Share Center Stage in "Jane Eyre" at BAM

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

While choreographers have been experimenting--sometimes swimmingly, sometimes founderingly--with mixing text into their dances, theater directors and playwrights have been increasing the presence of dance--and its choreographic complexity--in their plays. I guess it was only a matter of time before a director thought to use a sort of dancer doppelganger to enact in motion the repressed feelings of a protagonist. The surprise in Shared Experience's usage of this device in director Polly Teale's adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," seen Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, is that, for the most part...it works!! Swimmingly.

From what my companion at last night's show told me--haven't read the book myself--the character of Bertha does indeed exist in Bronte's novel. She's the squire Rochester's sequestered West Indian wife, who went mad after Rochester wouldn't let her go dancing and she went anyway, and who he has now locked up in his attic back in England. The addition made by Teale is that the same actress who plays Bertha, Harriette Ashcroft, also enacts a new character, Jane's repressed inner passionate self--the expressive, heated soul that wants to break through Jane's cold, traumatized-in-childhood exterior. The curtain rises on Jane reading about the West Indies, with this alter ego practically attached to her back. They dance together; they savor West Indian pineapple together, with Ashcroft even sucking the pineapple juice off Jane's fingers. Indeed, it's not apparent at the beginning that Ashcroft is a doppelganger; they could be best friends, sisters and possibly lovers. When the son of the orphan Jane's guardian accosts her, the alter ego gives as good as Jane gets; they bite him. The servants and mother rush in; Jane, and alter ego, are removed to the "red room," where her foster father died, and locked up. Jane ultimately wrestles with the alter ego, who succumbs; at which point Jane is able to leave-a pyrric victory, really, as her own passion is the loser, imprisoned again in its own red room.

As my companion pointed out, this beginning looked like a bad sign; would Ashcroft be appended to Penny Layden's Jane for the duration? Not to worry; she isn't; more effectively, she hovers, usually in that room atop a winding set of stairs, its four walls invisible to us in the audience. When Jane takes up a post as governess of Rochester's household, things get interesting. Ashcroft is sometimes Bertha, the mad wife, and sometimes Jane's alter ego. Sometimes they seem the same person. Are they? When the plot starts to devote more attention to the actual Bertha--whose existence provides plot pivots at two junctures--the concept becomes intriguing, suggesting as it does a meld of Jane, the would-be wife of Rochester, and Bertha, the crazy locked up wife. Is the link only figurative, suggesting Jane has imprisoned her own passionate side to keep it from dancing as Rochester has locked up his passionate wife? Or is it literal: Is this Jane's fate, too, if she really gives in to passion and marries Rochester?

The danger in having a complete 'nother person enact and physicalize the main character's emotional arc is that it could be come a substitute for the actress playing the main character actually doing the work. But this does not happen here. The doppelganger amplifies, hints at, compliments, even illustrates Jane's tussle with her own truly passionate soul as she alternates between bridling it and letting it fly free. Whenever Layden, as Eyre, lets her passions soar, Ashcroft is calmed and, ultimately, freed.

The significant step Shared Experience's "Jane Eyre" represents for the utilization of dance in theater is this: Often, dance inserted into a play can seem just an artful but disposable adornment, signifying little more than flourish--the crossing of a 't,' the dotting of an 'i.' Director Teale, however, aided by company movement specialist Liz Ranken and by Ashcroft, provides us with an alternate universe--not unlike a sports broadcast providing a view of the action from a different, close-up angle. "Jim, let's go to the inner-field camera and see what Jane looks like on the inside right now!" With all due respect to the extraordinary acting of Layden, I suspect that a dance fan, at least, could almost go and watch just her alter ego Ashcroft and get an--albeit abstracted--telling of the story. The device, and both Ashcroft and Layden's synergistic enactment of it, do highlight that, dramatic plot turns notwithstanding, this is not just a gothic romance. The true story here is Jane's wrestling with her inner demon--one that turns out in truth to be, as Rochester keeps telling her, a liberating angel.

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