“Are you a fan of the red-headed orphan of Avonlea?”
I admit that I, your humble reviewer, am an Anne Shirley fanatic and have been for a very long time – and I know that I am not alone.
That fact, coupled with recent renewed interest taking the form of three films featuring Martin Sheen and a CBC/Netflix series, sets the bar for any adaptation very high and presents a lofty goal for any production team willing to accept the challenge.
Julie King’s Director’s Notes for the Williamsburg Players’ Anne of Green Gables go on to state, quite accurately, that “(m)illions of people around the world have been charmed by her (Anne Shirley’s) exuberant ways,” yet she also confesses that the works of L. M. Montgomery were not a part of her childhood. This puts King at a decided disadvantage in bringing this particular adaptation, and the beloved characters and plot from the original story, to life. Any performance should be judged on its own merits alone, but the world of Anne is so well known to so many people, and in so many different incarnations, it can be exceedingly difficult for the audience to leave that familiarity at the door. T
he dim lighting, long scene changes, questionable sound effects, and odd directing choices don’t help matters. Add to all this a less-than-stellar adaptation of the work and you are left with a lackluster production.
One area where recognition must be is given costumes. Lisa Neun and MJ Devaney do a superb job costuming the cast. Pieces are historically accurate and well fitting, both simple and elegant when appropriate. Dress is a crucial element given the abstract nature of certain scenes, and the costumers keep the cast and audience in the correct setting no matter what set pieces are present.
The scenes which are abstract are that way out of necessity. There are far too many different settings (one of them a pond) to create a literal depiction of each one, and there is no need. The abstract depiction works. While the beautiful interior of the Green Gables sitting room remains unchanged except for some minor set dressings, moving set pieces (wagons) are employed on stage left to depict a myriad of locations. Through the clever design of Julie King and Steve Olson, what was Rachel Lynde’s kitchen flips to become the train depot. Another flip along with some set dressing changes and we see the Avonlea school. At times the piece rolls off completely to allow other scenes to be set. All in all, a very efficient and visually please use of the space.
The streamlined design was thwarted by slow scene changes. Scene changes are a dance number, and require the same practice and choreography. Unless done in some sort of costume, they also require the “dancers” to be in all black – one crew member’s red shirt was discernible despite the low lights on the evening I attended. While slow scene changes are something that could correct themselves in future performances, several instances could be avoided with an adjustment of lighting. Several times after long scene changes the only light to immediately rise was a single spot on the character of L. M. Montgomery sitting at a desk downstage right. In those cases, the blackouts could have been shortened (or even cut completely) while the focus was diverted away from the area of the scene change.
Lighting is always important in a show with multiple, abstract scenes and this was no exception. For several locations the only boundary the audience (and the actor) have for the scene is the edge of the pool of light, and so the shows with the least stationary set pieces often require the most lighting instruments. The design by Scott Hayes and Gavin Williams largely accomplished the necessary boundaries, though the light on the Green Gables sitting room seemed dimmer than the rest of the set. Several times when characters were on the couch they appeared to be in a bit of a shadow. A time or two an actor was lit when they should not have been, or vice versa, however such things can be the result of actors not finding their light, a cue being called too early or late, or a directing oversight in blocking the scene.
Another odd (and distracting) blocking choice involves the arrival of characters at each other’s doors. Doors are imagined, given the above mentioned need for abstract set design, and the audience does not miss them. However, while a character is waiting on a doorstep there is a sound effect of someone knocking, yet the character does not pantomime the action of knocking. This occurred frequently throughout the performance and was noticeable enough that I found myself watching for the smallest motion that could indicate a knock whenever a character arrived at someone’s door. I thought perhaps it was a motion that one or two actors simply forgot to perform. But the sound effect always came, and the knocking action never did.
The rest of the sound design (credited to John Trindle and Jim Henion), primarily the scene change music, is lovely. A soundtrack to turn of the century rural, maritime Canada is not something one could readily find a recording of, but the compilation assembled by John Trindle and Jim Henion could bear that title with no one being any the wiser.
As I stated initially, director Julie King’s late discovery of the story did not work in her favor. Actors usually are (and should be) given some autonomy in fleshing out their characters, but the ultimate decision lies with the director. The characters presented by King are not those found in the works of Montgomery. Marilla is portrayed as much softer than the character is written. Matthew seems to be almost scared of Marilla rather than deferential. While young Anne is meant to be dramatic, her pageantry in this production borders on distracting. Overacting is not uncommon in younger actors, but it needs to be reigned in by the director.
Anneliese Bush’s portrayal of Young Diana Barry comes closest to the mark among the children. Ms. Bush displays a youthful excitement tempered with enough restraint to be believable. Notable among the adult performances is that of John Jackson in all his smaller roles. Mr. Jackson makes each character unique while keeping them all relatable. Victoria George’s portrayal of Older Anne Shirley brings a welcome mix of a more mature Anne with just a hint of her past mischief shimmering below the surface. The performances of David Dunville (Matthew), Debbie Noonan (Marilla), and Nancy Wade (Rachel) are engaging in their own way, but they don’t quite grasp the true spirits of the characters they were meant to portray.
As I stated at the beginning, I am an avid fan of Anne of Green Gables. I had the entire set of books as a child (all eight that were published at the time), and watched the WonderWorks productions religiously every year when the PBS pledge drive rolled around. My love of the story is why I chose this show to review in the first place. Unfortunately, such familiarity with a subject can bring with it certain expectations, despite our best efforts to remain objective. I encourage any reader to see the show for themselves and make their own determination, and indeed always do. Nothing helps artists, or the artistic community as a whole, evolve more than patrons seeing and reacting to art.