Review “Wuthering Heights” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater): Storytelling Captivates!

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World Series Stage presents Wise Children’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. The UK show is a co-production of National Theatre, Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal in association with Berkley Repertory Theatre. 

Emily Brontë’s classic masterpiece gets an innovative spin by Adapter and Director Emma Rice. Brontë penned a saga of love/hate, lust/revenge and life/death. The multi-generational epic happens in the wildness of the English moors. Even if all the story details aren’t familiar, a lot of folks have at least heard of Heathcliff and Catherine, infamous lovers from the 19th century. Rice revisits this toxic couple and their intense game playing. Her rendition mingles the brutality and intensity with humor and whimsy. While the ferocity of hate trumping love is blistering, the dynamic movement, clever narration and occasional cheeky sidebar engage on a higher level.The actual story is almost secondary to the storytelling. And Rice’s storytelling captivates! 

Rice skillfully orchestrates her impressive ensemble and production team in telling the tale. When the lights go up, the ensemble are suddenly visible sitting in wooden chairs flanking the bare stage. The backdrop sets the tone with projections (Designer Simon Baker) of sweeping cloud coverage. The band (Sid Goldsmith, Music Director Pat Moran, Vincent de Jesus, Lloyd Gorman, TJ Holmes) is in the northwest corner. The story starts with Lockwood (played by Sam Archer) trying to secure shelter at Wuthering Heights from the storm. As he pleads for help, he hilariously battles the wind. Movement Director and Choreographer Etta Murfitt has him horizontally clinging on to the house or flapping his coat to show the dire conditions. The cruel Heathcliff (played by U/S Richard Castro) and his creepy sidekicks, Hareton and Cathy (played by Tama Phethean and Eleanor Sutton) offer limited refuge from the storm. Lockwood becomes haunted by the Wuthering Heights’ residents… present and past as banshees scream through the dark squall. 

Flashback thirty years to how it all began when Catherine and Hindley’s father brought home an orphan named Heathcliff. The childhood love-hate triangle festers into adult relationships of marriages, inheritances and estrangements. Although the complex tale has an ongoing soap opera vibe and a marrying-cousins-ick-factor, the story remains neatly tucked behind Rice’s storytelling.          

Rice incorporates a variety of fascinating techniques. The chorus, led by Jordan Laviniere, are Yorkshire Moors. They support the story with beautifully sung repetitive verses, rhythmic dance movements and the occasional snarky directive to a needy character. The set design is minimal. It’s devised with portable walls doubling as beds and tables. Set and Costume Designer Vicki Mortimer fills the empty stage with an assortment of attire showcasing a character’s class or demise. Rice also uses several chalkboards to help identify the dead from the living. This gimmick minimizes the complicated Earnshaws and Lintons’ family trees. Despite similar names like Catherine and Cathy, Hindley and Hareton, all the Lintons and Little Linton, the chalkboards organize the characters for the audience. 

And speaking of Little Linton (played by a nimble Georgia Bruce), he brings refreshing levity to the second act. Bruce’s delivery, physicality and costume are comedy gold! The scenes between Bruce and Sutton are equally tender and riotous.      

Lots to love in this Brontë-palooza… emphasis on ‘lots.’  WUTHERING HEIGHTS lives up to its name. It’s a blustery, vast tale! The running time, including intermission, is about three hours. Although musicals have similar running times, there are no big musical numbers in this show to energize the audience. At the beginning of Act 2, the ensemble makes a joke of it. They mention the show is all about ‘sitting in the hate.’ That kind of sitting isn’t for everyone and I did see empty chairs after the intermission.  Still, I enjoyed the creative storytelling of Rice, the talented ensemble and inventive production team.     


Running Time: Two hours and fifty-five minutes includes an intermission

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier

Based on the novel by Emily Brontë

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice

Performances are:

Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.

Wednesdays at 1 p.m.

Saturdays at 2:30 p.m.

Sundays at 2 p.m.

Thru February 19th  

For more information or tickets

Photos by Kevin Berne, courtesy of Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

For more Chicago theatre information and reviews, please visit Theatre in Chicago

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