Cygnet Theatre gives literary sisters some 'Withering Looks'

Masterpiece Theatre fans of 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Jane Eyre' owe themselves a visit to Cygnet Theatre.

It's one thing to come reverentially to classic literature later in life Ñ it's another to have it crammed down your throat at school. Youthful rebellion can produce dazzling satires, such as 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail.'

'Withering Looks' was a huge hit at the theatrically edgy Edinburgh Festival in 1992. It was written and performed by Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, and they neatly skewered Charlotte and Emily Bront‘, whose gothic romances offset their grim 19th century lives.

'Withering Looks' plays like a cross between Monty Python, Gilbert and Sullivan, and an English Christmas panto. Audience interaction is essential Ñ starting with a rain stick, hail drum and thunderclap noisemaker hidden under various seats. The opening-night audience happily generated gale-force wind noises whenever a door opened and laughed at running jokes such as Emily's longing for 'wild purple heather, the soaring wind and blasted stumps' and numerous double-entendres.

Vana O'Brien as Emily and Louisa Sermol as Charlotte slip in and out of character with the limited patience of high school girls; one scene even resembles a classroom. They are determined to summarize the Bront‘ sisters' lives but can't resist shortcuts Ñ including a mangled version of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Three Little Maids' to introduce the sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

Having two women represent three is overcome in an original (if not totally successful) manner, and a basket of inappropriately modern dolls are employed to explain stories in shorthand.

O'Brien and Sermol each take on two or three other characters as they act out 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Jane Eyre' in Chaplinesque costumes, and O'Brien also plays the family maid Nelly Ñ though thankfully without an impenetrable Yorkshire dialect.

O'Brien's accent is the steadier of the two, but Sermol's enthusiastic disorganization sparks much of the action as the two gallop through the Bront‘s' lexicon. Additional tension comes from Sermol's alarming dŽcolletage, which threatens to upstage the play at any moment.

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