A powerhouse cast navigates a seriously abridged ‘Villette’ at Lookingglass Theatre

Clocking in at just over two and a half hours, Sara Gmitter’s adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette,” feels abridged to the point of incompleteness.

SHARE A powerhouse cast navigates a seriously abridged ‘Villette’ at Lookingglass Theatre
Mo Shipley (as Ginerva Fanshawe, left) and Mi Kang (as Lucy Snowe) in “Villette” at Lookingglass Theatre.

Mo Shipley (as Ginerva Fanshawe, left) and Mi Kang (as Lucy Snowe) in “Villette” at Lookingglass Theatre.

Liz Lauren

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s take on Charlotte Bronte’s 1853 gothic novel “Villette” features sumptuous visuals and a skilled, charismatic ensemble. Unfortunately, those significant attributes can’t quite overcome a choppy adaptation that renders Bronte’s rich, sprawling story thin and disjointed and shortchanges its characters.

Clocking in at just over two and a half hours, Sara Gmitter’s adaptation of “Villette,” directed by Tracy Walsh, feels abridged to the point of incompleteness. The novel spans several decades, two countries and has roughly a dozen significant characters. Gmitter has deleted half the characters and relegated the story’s earlier years to brief bits of narration — both choices that leave the story missing crucial pieces of context.

‘Villette’

“Villette”

When: Through April 23

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

Tickets: $45 - $70

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission

Info: lookingglasstheatre.org

Still, “Villette” has many engrossing, memorable moments, thanks to a more-than capable cast. In all, it’s an alternately frustrating and engaging production.

Bronte’s plot is threaded with themes also at work in her earlier, more famous work, “Jane Eyre.” Like Jane, Lucy Snowe (Mi Kang) is a young woman who narrates her own story, which begins with her on the verge of reinvention in early 19th century England. When we meet Lucy, she’s leaving her home for a new life in France.

On the shipboard, Lucy has a fateful encounter with fellow-passenger Ginerva Fanshawe (Mo Shipley), a vain, selfish and surprisingly self-aware student from Madame Beck’s School for Girls in the (fictional) French village of Villette. At the obnoxious-yet-endearing Ginerva’s suggestion, Lucy finds a position at the school under the raptor-like supervision of exacting headmistress Madame Beck (Helen Joo Lee).

As did Jane, Lucy Snowe soon finds both her heart and her mind sorely tested by her surroundings, sometimes by seemingly malevolent supernatural forces. Where Jane had the pyromaniacal “mad woman in the attic” to contend with, Lucy finds herself tormented by the ghost of a nun.

Madame Beck may icily refuse to entertain widespread whispers that the school is haunted by a nun once buried alive on school grounds as punishment for breaking her vow of chastity. For Lucy, they’re impossible to disregard. As her time at the school unscrolls, Lucy contends with troublesome ghosts and humans alike, journeying through a web of mystery, romance and self-discovery that eventually leaves her stronger, wiser and happier.

Mi Kang (from left), Renée Lockett and Ronald Román-Meléndez star in “Villette” at Lookingglass Theatre.

Mi Kang (from left), Renée Lockett and Ronald Román-Meléndez star in “Villette” at Lookingglass Theatre.

Liz Lauren

Along the way, Lucy finds adventure and friendship among the denizens of Villette. She befriends the cerebral Paul Emmanuel (Debo Balogun), an erudite, kind professor haunted by his own tragedy. She reunites with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton (Helen Lockett) and her godmother’s handsome son John Graham Bretton (Ronald Roman-Melendez), one of Ginerva’s many suitors.

As Lucy, Kang pulls off a formidable feat. The heroine is an intentionally closed book to those around her, reserved, pensive and cautious. Kang manages to capture devastation, elation and everything in between with the subtlest of gestures and expressions. When John deems Lucy as “inoffensive as a shadow,” Kang’s still, silent unmistakable reaction is heart-wrenching. Lucy is fascinating, and you’ll be rooting for her throughout.

Lee’s Madame Beck is a scene stealer, running the school with the authority of a maestro, the precision of a drill sergeant and the imperious elegance of a supermodel. She also speaks unimpeachable French.

Debo Balogun (as Paul Emmanuel) and Helen Joo Lee (as Madame Beck) in “Villette” at Lookingglass Theater.

Debo Balogun (as Paul Emmanuel) and Helen Joo Lee (as Madame Beck) in “Villette” at Lookingglass Theater.

Liz Lauren

Lockett gives Mrs. Bretton an almost otherworldly authority. When she speaks, it’s with the stone-certainty of someone who has survived more than a little and suffers no fools. Balogun brings a calibrated dignity and a core of warmth to Paul Emmanuel, a professor whose cloak of academic and intellectual rigor can’t quite entirely camouflage the deep losses he’s suffered in life. Shipley’s Ginerva is a Victorian-era mean girl who generates much of the production’s physical comedy, often with the mere flounce of her bulbous petticoats.

Petticoats and all, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld does gorgeous work throughout, using impeccably tailored details to telegraph character traits. Lucy’s monochromatic gray jacket and skirt are the armor of someone trying to blend in. Paul Emmanuel’s wire spectacles lend him gravitas. The creases in Madame Beck’s immaculate jacket look sharp as knives. Mrs. Bretton’s gleaming gown gives her the air of a goddess.

Yu Shibagaki’s atmospheric set design is dominated by sepia-toned screens that back the actors with images of carefully inked pages reminiscent of a 19th century manuscript. Lighting designer John Culbert gives a watercolor moodiness to the production, a sea of jarred bulbs descending from above when the supernatural elements of the story rise to the fore.

There’s enough talent on stage to tell this convoluted tale with passion and impact. But first, they need a script that captures Bronte’s story.

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