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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Tanglewood Tale
The play's eighteen scenes are set in places that have become historic landmarks: Arrowhead, the farm where Melville finished his masterpiece is now a museum. The cottage briefly occupied by the Hawthorne family, and where he completed The House of Seven Gables as well as several books of children's stories which retold classical legends (e.g., Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys), still stands on the road named after the author. The Curtis Hotel in which the authors have staged their version of the famous friendship's ending , still stands in the center of Lenox, (though now as an apartment house with ground level shops). The meeting of Hawthorne and Melville during a hike up Monument Mountain in the summer of 1850 is an event recreated annually by Berkshire residents. It is also the play's second scene which lays the groundwork for all that follows.
The script is complex in that it incorporates much material from both authors' work, including fantasy characters from Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales who are made visible to Melville as the friendship deepens. The playwrights and the actors portraying their key characters do a fine job of showing us the kindred spirits beneath the sharply dissimilar surface: Dan McCleary brings the right touch of explosiveness and flamboyance to the widely traveled Melville (with traces of his comic demeanor from the company's recent The Tempest ); James Goodwin Rice taps into all the subtleties of the emotionally restrained but eccentric Hawthorne, who always wore black like his Puritan forbears and talked with his characters in the privacy of his study. While Hawthorne's relationship with the supportive Sophia (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) seems idyllic compared to Melville's, with his practical Lizzie (Celia Madeoy), both marriages are difficult. Sophia Hawthorne adores her husband but feels isolated from society and shut out from his inner world. Her suspicions about the true nature of his feelings for Melville are based on clues from his childhood experiences and previous "mentoring".
The scenes that explore the homoeroticism that stoked the fires of the friendship and ended it are, like other Melville-Hawthorne studies and biographies, based on conjecture. In short, A Tanglewood Tale, while based on fact and obviously careful research, is a work of the imagination. This authorial imaginativeness is underscored by the intermittent appearances of three characters from Hawthorne's children's stories: Eustace Bright (Gabriel Vaughan), Sweet Fern (Tolan Aman, also doubling as young Julian Hawthorne) and Primrose (Allison Collins also doubling as Hawthorne's young daughter Una, whose bent for talking with her dead gradmother would according to her father have led his ancestors to condemn her as a witch).
While the authors' version of the real life drama is generally creditable and the dialogue rings true, there are interchanges that miss the mark. Some of the words the proper Hawthorne uses seem totally out of character. The scene when Sophia confronts him about his relationship with Melville and other young men, while dramatically pungent, somehow stretches our credulity about marital confrontations in the year 1850.
The bare bones staging works well to evoke the shift between the Hawthorne and Melville homes as well as the various other locations. However, despite Michael Hammond's sturdy direction, the many scene-to-scene shifts are at times awkward and repetition. This isn't helped by the incidental music which after a while becomes monotonous and irritating.
It takes at least some reading of the novels and stories by this pair of American literary lions to fully appreciate A Tanglewood Tale and to recognize the visual and scripted allusions -- for example, Melville's sea captain costume is a tribute to Jack Chase the sea captain of his White Jacket. Audiences unfamiliar with Melville and Hawthorne may wish the two and a half hour play were tightened up, especially the first act. On the other hand, the play may well send them to the library or book store or one of the free classics download sites to read Moby-Dick or The House of Seven Gables. Then if Shakespeare & Company decides to reprise the play during next summer's season, they can return for another and more appreciative look.