Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Scarlet Letter

Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Dean's review of Mr. Mallard's Magical Menagerie and The Mystery of the Black Swan

Steven Forrest and Caitlin Kelly
Photo by Russell Maynor
The Scarlet Letter is often cited as the first great American novel. Maybe by default it is, seeing that there is no antecedent novel that is still remembered, but I find it unreadable. I just can't plow through Hawthorne's excessive wordiness, and any book that uses as a symbol a meteor shaped in the letter A streaking across the sky—well, that author should be ashamed of himself. Henry James was a big fan of the novel. 'Nuff said. I hope they're not still assigning it in high school.

Despite Hawthorne's shortcomings, the story still holds psychological and prurient interest, even though we don't put women in jail for having a child out of wedlock or burn witches anymore. Luckily for us, Phyllis Nagy, in her 1994 adaptation, has condensed the book down to two hours of stage time (but I still found it dragged at one point in the first act). It's actually more of a rewriting than an adaptation. The plot is the same, but the characters sure don't talk like Puritans.

Nagy probably felt the need to jolt us here and there, since the story is familiar to most of us. When Chillingworth says of his wife Hester, "she fucked me with wild abandon," or when Dimmesdale calls Mistress Hibbins a slut and a whore and a dozen other synonyms, you think, wait a minute, where the hell are we? The costumes are from 1650, but the characters aren't. Other than the shock value, I'm not sure that these anachronisms add much.

The play is narrated by the preternatural 7-year-old Pearl, who says she remembers being on the scaffold in the town square of Boston with her mother Hester when she was three months old. Actually, she's probably narrating as an adult, remembering (or making up) what happened when she was 7, and earlier. Is she a reliable narrator? Hard to say. In this telling, Hester is a strong, assertive woman, and kind of freaky in her erotic attractions. She's turned on by Chillingworth's humped back, and she seduces the sexually timid Dimmesdale when he's almost dead. Not the Hester I was expecting.

In short, this is not your high school teacher's Scarlet Letter. For the most part, it works, and at least it's not Hawthorne verbatim. There are a few minor things about this production that bothered me. I know it's a micro-budget show, but does every character have to wear the exact same clothes over the span of seven years? (I guess we can explain this away by saying that these are the only clothes that Pearl remembers them wearing.) The set, a scaffold (really just a platform) in front and a forest in the back, is fine, but the day I saw the show, there were new people in the control booth, and the glitches in the lighting cues and sound made me feel sorry for the actors in the second act.

Still, they overcame the technical difficulties. Caitlin Kelly is excellent as Hester, a woman who won't be intimidated. Annie Elliott plays Pearl as the character is written, precocious and a little bit creepy. Justin Golding, new to Albuquerque theater, is powerfully nasty as Chillingworth; he could have a career being the man you love to hate. Dimmesdale suffers his way throughout the entire play, and Stephen Forrest is very good at conveying that. Mario Cabrera, with his imperious voice and speech patterns, is perfect as the Governor; and Judy Herrera does a good job as his sister, Mistress Hibbins the witch, in spite of the fact that her costume tends to direct your attention away from her face. Ruben Muller has a fairly small part as the jailer, and he's good, but he sounds more like he's from New Mexico than New England.

Aux Dog's Producing Artistic Director Victoria Liberatori brought in Douglas Garland to direct this play, and he has managed to fit the action nicely onto a small stage and elicit good performances from his cast. If you're expecting a Masterpiece Theatre production of The Scarlet Letter, this is not the play for you. But if you're up for something a lot edgier, you should see this show.

The Scarlet Letter, through September 30, 2018, at the Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill, on Monte Vista just north of Central, Albuquerque NM. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets range from $10 to $22. Information and tickets are available at at