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The basic myth involved belongs to an era when women were permitted reading and writing as "ladylike" activities, but not granted the independence of action that could validate them through experience. (Even in Brontë's own time, some women, like "George Eliot" and "George Sand," took it anyway.) Meaning to view the myth through a modern feminist prism, Teale exploits a predictable strategy: The mad wife locked up in Mr. Rochester's attic is the heroine's Doppelgänger (or more precisely Doppelgängerin), beginning as the naughty second self for whose misbehavior her aunt punishes her in childhood. Extending this English-department notion over three hours of theater produces exactly the diminishing returns you'd expect— especially since, in accordance with the official feminist rules for approaching nonfeminist women's literature, the principal male figure has to be utterly deromanticized. Or—no doubt—it's sheer and utter coincidence that Penny Layden is a touching (though pinchily dry) Jane, Harriette Ashcroft an effective madwoman, and Sean Murray's Rochester a gravelly, emotionally monotone disaster of a performance. His mastiff, growled by Michael Matus, has more subtlety as well as more animation, and those spectators who come back for the second half must be among the very few who have ever hoped Jane Eyre would forget Rochester and marry St. John Rivers, to whom Matus gives a glowing idealist zeal.

Sandra Shipley, Paul Michael Valley, Katie Finneran, and Tom Bloom in Arms and the Man: Balkin’ at the Anglicisms
photo: Joan Marcus
Sandra Shipley, Paul Michael Valley, Katie Finneran, and Tom Bloom in Arms and the Man: Balkin’ at the Anglicisms

Details

Arms and the Man
By George Bernard Shaw
Roundabout Gramercy
127 East 23rd Street
212-777-4900

Jane Eyre
Adapted from Charlotte BrontŽís
novel by Polly Teale
BAM Harvey Theatre
(Closed)

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Teale is capable of good work when she curbs her heavy hand: Beyond the good points I've mentioned, Joan Blackham makes a capable Mrs. Fairfax; Phillip Rham doubles stylishly as cellist and Rochester's horse; Hannah Miles, though less good in other roles, is a sassy and musical Blanche Ingram. And the climactic fire effect, built of waving sheets and cascading papers, might actually be thrilling at the end of a less laborious event. But the obviousness that dogs—sorry, Mr. Matus—that weighs down the whole thing is of a piece with the crudity and carelessness that are the hallmarks of contemporary British theater: As an instance, the actress who plays Rochester's ward, Adele, who is supposed to be French, has the worst French pronunciation I have ever heard on the English-speaking stage.

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