Vilette - a world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre adapted from the novel
Updated: Mar 5
Lucy Snowe descends the auditorium stairs musing on who a story belongs to, who gets to tell
it, characterize it, summarize it and decide where to begin and end it. Because I first
encountered Mi Hang standing very close to me, talking over my head in a voice too loud and
over annunciating for our proximity, she seemed to me to be overacting, but that immediate
impression soon dissipated as she stood on the stage and became a witty and perspective
narrator of her own tale. Her plain gray wool jacket and full skirt, neatly parted hair in a simple
bun certainly screamed ‘Jane Eyre!” as much as her wry nod to the more famous heroine,
promising this was not a fairytale with mad women shut up in attics.
The playwright’s note promises that we will recognize the humanity and common dilemmas
that Lucy faces through the changes the intervening years have brought - that this is an
Everywoman’s story. It was not immediately accessible, as the convoluted Victorian-novel
narration and extensive exposition without much action of any kind, let alone dramatic scenes,
made it distant and removed. But funny asides about what should be included the bad form of
confusion an audience by introducing a character who would not reappear, soon had me
chuckling and more involved. I particularly enjoyed her frequent elongated neck expressing
surprise and incomprehension of other characters’ ignorance of her feelings. Kang gives many
knowing asides and this lack of fourth wall does indeed involve the audience as players in the
story, as she promises at the beginning.
My young teen companion particularly enjoyed Debo Balogun as the arch, stand offish teacher
Paul Emmanuel, who just wants a good friend. It was his beautiful deep voice and way of
swishing his fez tassel that did it, as well as the soft spot he always has for the comedic
sidekick. Balogun played the most developed character and it was great to see him grow in
confidence and sharing personal truths as the play progresses.
In true Lookingglass style, the set was simple and changeable. The sliding panels with images
of the novel or hand written letters on them were over used - moved to indicate a change in
scene more than to actually reveal or conceal a new stage element. They created a slight
Japanese house feel that may or not have been intended. Certainly the ethnicities of the cast
were not alluded to in any other way and did not impact the storytelling beyond a refreshing
variety of faces and voices. The garden was beautifully rendered by hanging glass bottles and
lamps, and the simple slightly different levels of the stage used well to convey different spaces.
The sound design by Deon Custard and Brandon Reed was brilliant, transporting us from tense
school room to crowed ball and theaters, completely.
The ending was the most satisfyingly Lookingglass - languid and poignant slow motion
meeting and parting of lovers, silks and lights churning us in the sea as in so many memorable
productions. I prefer Lookingglass in the round where I feel more immersed and part of the
story, but I have never been so explicitly invited to be a part or the telling and making sense of
a play before, and I liked it.
Vilette starts as a comedy of manners more in the Jane Austen vein than the more elemental
Brontë (perhaps a false dichotomy but one I was taught by my mother, so it remains!) and
develops into a story of human determination and suffering, making our own luck and subject
to the vagaries of class and birth, unrequited and unexpected love. This six-hander takes us
on quite a journey.
Vilette is playing at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 through April
23. Tickets at https://lookingglasstheatre.org/event/villette-2022/
For more reviews go to www.TheatreInChicago.com