So last night was the cast’s first read-through of the script, and we were lucky enough to snag the air conditioned Main Stage. Reading the stage directions was our intrepid director, Laura Roald; also present (for the first part of the evening) was assistant director Taryn Jorgenson. Co-producers Tabitha Keast and PJ Hammond were pressed into actor duty to read the male roles when cast member Laine Newman had to leave early.
Playwright Polly Teale’s breakdown calls for at least two male actors to play multiple roles, but due to casting issues, Laura has decided to have an all-female cast. Laine (aka “Boy 5” on the scene breakdown list) and another actor TBA (aka “Boy 4”) between them will play a couple of husbands, several lovers, various teachers, a theatre manager, the main character’s father, and the fictional Mr. Rochester from “Jane Eyre”!
“After Mrs. Rochester” is the fascinating life of Jean Rhys, who was a chorus girl and then a writer in the early decades of the 1900s, but always a bit mentally unstable. I’m reading a massive biography of her – she lived to be 88! She’s most well-known for writing “Wide Sargasso Sea”, an amazing prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel “Jane Eyre”. Like the first Mrs. Rochester (that’d be Bertha – the mad wife in Rochester’s attic), Jean Rhys was born in the West Indies, and wanted to tell the story of the Englishman’s reluctant bride, with whom she shared so many parallels. The play touches on all the highlights of Jean’s life and career, including her relationship with her estranged daughter, as the various characters from both her real past and fictional obsession are alive on the stage.
Laura’s concept is that all the actors are onstage most of the time, either participating in the scenes or listening actively. There will be ambient sound (composed by Megan Benjafield) woven throughout, and non-naturalistic lighting (designed by Paul Hardy).
Last night’s reading was not the “official” read-through – that will be held on August 8, with designers, etc. attending. But it was the first time that Laura got to hear all the script aloud – a very cool experience, as she pointed out, after “living with this play in my head for months”. A variety of accents (Caribbean, standard British, Cockney, Dutch) will be required for the various characters, so the producers have engaged dialect coach John Fleming (who also worked on “The Real Inspector Hound” and “After Magritte” for Alumnae back in January). For this reading, however, Laura did not insist on accents.
It went swimmingly. Act I ran about an hour long, and Act II approximately 30 minutes. Polly Teale’s minimal stage directions will no doubt prove production head-scratchers. For example, “An excerpt from the show. ELLA is in the chorus.” Hmm – should be fun. Laura promises that the chorus will perform “All Down Piccadilly”, from the hit Edwardian musical “The Arcadians” – she has the sheet music! And how about: “Bertha emerges from the trunk, dancing.” Snake-charmer dance, anyone? There are fight scenes, sex scenes (no nudity!), and on two occasions water is dumped on different characters. Oh, and let’s not forget the lesson on how to act! PJ particularly enjoyed that bit. Ella, now studying acting at RADA, writes home to her parents: “Yesterday we learned how to die. You fall forward if you’re stabbed from behind. Backward if you’re stabbed from the front and straight down if you stab yourself.” So now we know. Pity there are no stabbing deaths in this play.
Julie Burris as Ella’s mother / Chorus Girl 2 / Stella / Policeman 2
Keriece Harris as Tite / Meta / Chorus Girl 3 / Landlady / Policeman 1
Laura Jabalee as Jean’s daughter / Jane Eyre / schoolgirl / Maudie [Chorus Girl 1]
Tina McCulloch as Bertha
Jessica Rose as Ella [young Jean]
Laine Newman as Ella’s father / Voice Teacher / Lancelot / Lenglet / Husband
TBA as Rochester / Gentleman / Lover / Ford Madox Ford / Teacher / Theatre Manager
Susan Q Wilson as Jean Rhys
“After Mrs. Rochester” opens September 23, and runs to October 7. Reservations will be taken after August 31 at firstname.lastname@example.org.