After its sold out opening of Shakespeare’s The Tempest on February 27th as part of NCSU Center Stage's season, Aquila Theatre raised the curtain on an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights for a brief weekend in their repertory tour. Patrons lucky enough to score tickets for both events enjoyed the dynamic range the cast of six demonstrated and the scope of both subtle and extravagant elements of design from the production team at Aquila. While it may be difficult not to compare aspects of two shows produced back to back by the same cast and company, Wuthering Heights stood solidly on its own two feet despite following after one of Shakespeare’s most mystifying comedies. With contemporary elements of choreography and a sequence of events much abbreviated from the classic novel, this adaptation was certainly not your grandmother’s Wuthering Heights. But with the subtle yet striking lighting and sound designs of Peter Meineck and Christopher Marc (respectively) and the highest emotional stakes held by the talented cast, Director Desiree Sanchez’s adaptation of the Bronte classic was remarkable.
The play opened with spotlights on individual company members center stage, engaging in a choreographed pantomime of what are assumed to be – as listed in the program – millworkers at their labor. While Ms. Sanchez – with many dance accolades under her belt – choreographed apt and beautiful dance-like interactions throughout the performance, this opening choreography had little - if anything - to do with the plot and seemed only to serve the purpose of prolonging the duration of the play with aesthetically pleasing scene changes. Beyond the unnecessary choreography, this production was beautiful. The bold cast of six committed entirely to the gravity of love lost or scorned; each actor was at least double if not triple cast. James Lavender waxed both strict and comedic as patriarch Old Earnshaw and the comically devout Earnshaw servant, Joseph. Tara Crabbe and Joseph Cappellazzi attacked the lovers’ parts of Catherine and Heathcliff with nearly overwhelming vigor. Cappellazzi’s transformation of Heathcliff from a downtrodden stepchild to an enraged and jealous lover was nearly unsettling. Michael Ring was remarkable in perhaps the most versatile of casting as Hindley Earnshaw and Isabella Linton. Ring developed a thorough character arc for Hindley as he descended into drunkenness with hatred for his brother and grief in the death of his wife. In effortless transformation – assisted by the well-executed costume design of Deanna Berg MacLean – Ring became the very fragile Isabella Linton, sister to the equally fragile Edgar Linton, played by Rupert Baldwin. Baldwin created an excellent dynamic as Catherine’s timid husband to Cappellazzi’s brash and even cruel Heathcliff. Carys Lewis was the perfect voice of reason as Nelly – appropriately compassionate and yet hands-off to the turmoil of the families she served.
While he certainly could have stolen the show, lighting designer Peter Meineck created a subtle atmosphere of oppression and entrapment with hazy projections and angular bars casting ominous shadows on the unhappy events onstage. With the morose cello sounds of Christopher Marc’s sound design and the intentional, almost painstaking choreography from Sanchez, the designs of Wuthering Heights evinced a true sense of desperation wrought from love.
As an adaptation, this production may not have captured enthusiasts’ best recollections of the classic novel – it would take much more than two hours to encapsulate Emily Bronte’s one and only tragedy in its entirety. However, Aquila Theatre’s Wuthering Heights was perfectly suited for the stage, shattering any preconceived notions that some required reading for high school students could only play out like a bad production of Chekov. Sanchez put perhaps the most emotionally charged, highest stake scenes on display for the stage, and her company rose mightily to the challenge.