Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Theatre Review: Prudence

Prudence by Barbara and Carlton Molette
Connecticut Repertory Theatre
23 February - 5 March 2006

exquisite Prudence
by Edmond Chibeau

Carlton & Barbara Molette photo: Dolllie Harvey

Prudence by Carlton and Barbara Molette is intelligent theatre.

The problems it considers are not simple, the language it uses is rich, nuanced and complex enough to investigate the issues it is asked to address. The production team suits the word to the action and the action to the word.

Prudence Crandall is a teacher. She is motivated by her need to teach and by the need of those around her to learn. In 1834 she opens a school that allows her to pursue her desire to help people learn. One type of student that will always cut to the quick of a teacher’s heart is one who wants to learn; who needs to learn. A young middle class woman who is disenfranchised from her right to an education comes to Prudence and asks to attend class.

Once that domino falls the pattern becomes clear.

But there is a problem. The aspiring student is African American; and the unenlightened people of Canterbury Connecticut don’t want Blacks in “their” school. But Prudence believes that the good people of the town will encourage education for all. When Prudence enrolls “young ladies of color” in her school the law of unintended consequences comes into effect.

The playwriting team of Carlton and Barbara Molette gives life to the conflicting pressures that the characters feel. Will the Prudence Crandall School find support in the white community, the black community, the church, the courts, the Connecticut Legislature? All of those entities have bearing on the outcome of the play, but very few of them are unequivocal in their positions.

Early in the play Prudence reads from the abolitionist newspaper, “The Liberator.” She says, “There are no chains so binding as the chains of ignorance.” This line is the spine of the play; the hinge upon which the lives of the characters swing.

Conflicting social imperatives and personal emotions are brought out by the authors. The answers aren’t easy. In the beginning both sides are not as firm in their positions as they become as the play moves forward. Prudence and the audience hope that the clergy or some of the neighbors will see the value of an integrated school. But at every turning point each side becomes more obstinate and more firm in its position. The Molettes and Director, Tyler Marchant, reveal the equivocations that arise in the hearts of their characters.
They allow us to watch the deeply felt emotions of the characters while keeping our intellect engaged in a kind of Brechtian objectivity that helps us think clearly about the issues.

The 18th and early 19th century had a style of writing and speech that was more formal, elegant, and syntactically complex than the language we use today. Barbara and Carlton Molette have lifted passages from the letters and publications of the time and have managed to blend the voice of the playwrights with the actual voices of the 1800s. This is not an easy task and the subtlety of the expression reflects the subtlety of the understanding the playwrights bring to their topic and to the English language. It is characterized by an elegant restraint. This restraint is present even when discussing the most passionate views.

As a play is wrought it is possible to embed within the text ambiguities, opportunities and problems for interpreters to discover and make their own. There are any number of these forks in the road that actors and directors may take, but each decision opens another set of possibilities. How much does Prudence vacillate? How frightened, how brave, how unsure are the townspeople who disapprove of her undertaking? Prudence gives actors, directors and production designers a chance to offer interpretations.

This play is an important, intelligent, dispassionate look at people in the throes of great passion.

Part of a director’s job is to set the tone of interpretation for a production. Tyler Marchant found a way to create an ensemble for Prudence that includes the actors, designers and authors of the play. The actors listened to each other, felt their lines, and articulated the emotions of the characters and the words of the playwrights. Hillary Parker is an exquisite Prudence. Amber Gray, Christina Jolley, Prince T. Bowie, Ian Pfister, and Meghan O’Leary all play several characters and manage to differentiate those characters through posture, attitude and vocal inflection.

The costume, set, and lighting designs by Laura Crow, Brett McCormack, and Brian Barnett match and complement the subtlety and understated elegance of the writing.
The palette ranges from mourning-dove-gray to watery-mauve-blue but within that narrow spectrum is a kaleidoscope of shifting tones.

The Molettes have crafted a piece that production companies will want to work with. Prudence is highly producible, it is about an important, complex, and ongoing issue in American society. It is not one sided, and it has layers of meaning that offer opportunities for different levels of interpretation by directors, actors and designers.


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