Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque

The Scarlet Letter
elite Dance and Theatre
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Dean's review of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Rob's reviews of The Diary of Anne Frank and The Country House


Kira Akmajian and Cast
Photo by Two Brunos Photography
"The Scarlet Letter" is one of those books that I cannot read anymore. Life is too short for me to hack my way through Hawthorne's jungle of verbiage, over-vegetated by what shmoop.com calls his "passionate love affair with the comma." Henry James loved it—'nuff said.

So a big thank you to Cheri Costales and elite Dance and Theatre for giving us the Classics Illustrated version because, after all, it's a pretty good story. In case you didn't have the novel shoved down your throat in high school, it concerns Hester Prynne, who is pregnant out of wedlock in 1650s Massachusetts, as Puritan as it gets. Actually, not quite out of wedlock, but her husband has not been seen for two years, presumed lost at sea. Since she's still officially married, they call her an adulteress and make her wear the title letter, a red A.

Who could the father be? One of the married men in town, or the young single minister Arthur Dimmesdale whom everyone adores? I wonder, if you didn't already know, how long it would take you to figure it out. A good part of the novel is spent unraveling this mystery, but Hester's husband shows up out of the blue and has no trouble figuring out who she slept with. He changes his name from Prynne to Chillingworth, pretends to be a doctor, and sticks around to exact a years-long revenge on the culprit.

Hester's daughter Pearl is seven years old before the truth is revealed to the townspeople, very dramatically (or melodramatically, depending on your taste), and it doesn't end well for the father. Such are the wages of sin, or rather, cowardice. An American tragedy, one of the first in our literature.

Cheri has updated the story to the 1940s small-town America, where the power of the church is just as strong as it was in Puritan days. She keeps the basic story intact, but puts in some well thought out additions. For example, Chillingworth has been missing for two years because he is a deserter from the Army and has to hide his identity forever. There is some fraudulent activity in the church's financial accounts; the parishioner who stole the money figures out what Chillingworth has done to Dimmesdale, but cannot tell anyone for fear of being exposed himself. Constance, the parishioner who is the most vocal in ostracizing Hester, is probably in love with Dimmesdale herself. It's like "I've Got A Secret" where all the panelists have secrets too.

Cheri, who writes and directs all of elite's shows, is really good at this: taking a well known story and making it fresh and truer to our modern lives. She is also innovative in that she has created a hybrid kind of entertainment: a theatrical play with interspersed dances. It's sort of like musical theater, except that instead of people breaking out into singing, they express themselves by dancing. I don't know if anybody else in the country is doing this, but it's unique in my experience.

elite is also daring in its choice of music. Based on the 1940s setting, I was expecting big band or Carter Family songs, but instead it's recorded modern day gospel, Mumford and Sons, Jonny Lang, The 45s, and a lot of contemporary performers I've never heard of. There's a really well-choreographed jitterbug-like number, but most of the dance is modern and expressionistic. The only traditional number in the show is one in which the entire cast, led by Alex Harden's fine voice, sings "I'll Fly Away."

Alex is a dreamboat Dimmesdale. He can sing and dance, looks great, and proves that he's a good actor too. Kira Akmajian is appropriately stoic as Hester, maybe a little too much so, but her emotions are expressed in her dancing. Mia Swanson, though young, is totally natural as Pearl. Ben Nolte wisely avoids playing Chillingworth as a dastardly cliché, which is why he can fool everyone in town into thinking he's a good man. I was very impressed by Cara Sower's acting as Constance, and most of the rest of the very large cast does commendable work, too.

The dramatic part of the show was directed by Cara Sowers and Cheri, while Cheri is responsible for the overall direction. The indefatigable Cheri and Linda Downum did the excellent costumes, and there are an awful lot of them. It's all very well done, on what I assume is a tiny budget.

elite Dance and Theatre only do three shows a year. I would recommend seeing anything that they put on. Certainly this show.

The Scarlet Letter, adapted by Cheri Costales from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is being presented by elite Dance and Theatre at the North 4th Theatre on 4th Street just north of Griegos in Albuquerque. Through April 30, 2016. Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:00, Saturday matinee at 2:00. Tickets are $18 or 20. Info at www.elitenm.net.