Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Brontë’ a little/giant of an invigorating play in De Pere

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St. Norbert College Theatre Studies Bronte scene_1554727312306.jpg.jpg

Photo caption: “Jane Eyre” author Charlotte Brontë (Marissa Helchen) has a confrontation with her trouble-plagued brother, Branwell Brontë (Ben Wylie), in a scene from the St. Norbert College Theatre Studies production of “Brontë.” (St. Norbert College photo)

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Seeing “Brontë,” you are a fly on the wall in the lives of a family that is like no other in the world of creativity.

You see the churning dynamics of three sisters, their errant brother and their widowed father.

Along the way, you see characters that two of the sisters created in their novels. In your mind appears a kind of reality that books imbue. In one scene, a character even comforts her creator. Imagine.

You hear the sisters weigh the role of writing in their lives. They wonder, why? – why and how do they write?

You are in a time long past, generally the 1840s, when death knocks often on the front door. The father will see none of his six children live to age 40.

“Bronte” is a little/giant play.

Little: Cast of seven, two hours, condensed stage, with a main set piece a table strewn with books and instruments of writing by pen and ink.

Giant: Lives and thoughts of a literary family whose impact still ripples 180 (or so) years after their initial impact.

The family: Charlotte Brontë, creator of “Jane Eyre,” a revolutionary novel in concept and delivery; Emily Brontë, creator of “Wuthering Heights;” Anne Brontë, creator of “Agnes Gray;” Branwell Brontë, creator of a portrait of the three sisters and creator of angst in the family; and Patrick Brontë, the cleric father, a kind of oarsman of a beautiful yet leaky boat plying a swirling sea.

Playwright Polly Teale creates dense fabric in her play, but the cast is not intimidated by the material in the St. Norbert College Theatre Studies production that has three more performances in Webb Theatre in Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts.

Now, you have to listen closely because there is much pith in the words and situations. But in ways the play and production are wondrous as director Stephen Rupsch leads the company to solid accomplishment.

The “show” is visual, too, as executed by scenographer April Beiswenger of the faculty. Branwell Brontë’s portrait of his sisters is recreated and split in three (Charlotte, Emily and Anne singled out) and projected in the background. Projections are layered over as the story progresses. Some images are stills of the countryside and places in the lives of the Brontës. Some images are motion pictures, including a symbolic white dove rising in flight.

There are snippets of music and sounds, too.

Just as Charlotte Brontë takes charge in the family, so does Marissa Helchen in that role. There’s no messin’ with Charlotte, her strength, her smarts and her will. Helchen taps that aura in dealing with the critical Emily (Janie Janczakowski), common sense Anne (Samm Dick) and exasperating Branwell (Ben Wylie), while giving deference to dad (Will Fischer). Figures from novels are kind of haunting as they drift in and out – Bertha (Jackie Vinopal), Cathy (Mercedes Danforth) and Rochester and Heathcliff (Ben Wylie, doing triple duty). Weaving through in the second act as n-n-nervous and quaking males in Charlotte’s life is Tanner Witthuhn.

“Brontë” is a rare kind of play. It takes a certain kind of commitment to consider presenting the think-minded drama and then pull it off with certainty. This production is admirable. It gives the intellect and imagination good scrubs.

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Creative: Playwright – Polly Teale; director – Stephen Rupsch; scenographer – April Beiswenger; technical director/shop manager – Corey Pinchart; assistant technical director – Brittney Roffers; Aphfa operations director – Paul Mashl; stage manager – KaCie Ley; graphic designer – Elizabeth Hein

Cast:

Charlotte Brontë – Marissa Helchen

Emily Brontë – Janie Janczakowski

Anne Brontë – Sam Dick

Mrs. Rochester (Bertha) – Jackie Vinopal

Cathy – Mercedes Danforth

Branwell Brontë/Rochester/Heathcliff – Ben Wylie

Patrick Brontë – Will Fischer

Author Bell Nichols/Arthur Huntington – Tanner Witthuhn

Running time: Two hours

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 11, 12 and 13

Info: snc.edu/tickets

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THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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