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Past and present come together in Jungle’s bold new ‘Little Women’

September 16, 2018

What pronouns would Jo March, the protagonist of Louisa May Alcotts Little Women, have preferred?

The obvious answer is that no one would ask that question in the 1860s but the premise of Jungle Theaters thorny, deconstructed take on Little Women is that if folks back then had known that gender is nonbinary, the imaginative and obstreperous Jo (C. Michael Menge) would have landed somewhere in the middle of the continuum.

This is not your grandmothers Little Women nor, the show is saying, could it be. If the Jungles version of Jane Austen in last years Miss Bennet,was a traditional rendering, its Little Women is nearly the exact opposite, pulling the Alcott story apart and reassembling it in the way a Cubist painter might. Kate Hamills world-premiere adaptation has the characters speak the words of the 19th century with the inflections of today. In this Little Women performed in Chelsea M. Warrens dreamlike set, including a turntable that whirls characters back and forth in time the past is accounted for but were more interested in how the story feels now.

Director Sarah Rasmussens production knows we read Alcott differently than they did 150 years ago. So, for instance, when Jo (born Josephine) tries to sell a novel to a publisher, the reaction she gets would send her scrambling to Twitter to post a #MeToo story, if she had access to the internet or a phone or, for that matter, an audience that cared about the humanity of women. When Jos sister, Meg (a tart, intelligent Christine Weber), unleashes a spectacular rant about the joys of motherhood, shes basically a post-bellum Ali Wong. And, when Jo is referred to as fellow or muses that she cant abide it when anyone is stuffed into a role that doesnt suit them, we wonder if shes speaking about herself and the gowns that, according to costume designer Rebecca Bernstein, shes forced to wear over pants.

Theres no place in this world for me, wails Jo to her supportive mother, Marmee (Christina Baldwin) and the rest of her family. You have no idea how awful it is spending years pretending youre someone youre not! Actually, they do have an idea its practically the only thing she talks about but the bold and committed performance by Menge makes sure we get the idea, too. Raw and full of ache, Menges Jo is a powerful person in a world that has no use for that, and Menge makes sure we see what a vulnerable place that puts Jo in.

Like Alcotts book, the Jungle play lingers over the quotidian details of the clinging-to-the-middle-class lives of the Marches: Will the four, titular sisters find happiness and love? Will delicate Beth survive her brushes with ill health? Will the familys nominal patriarch return from the Civil War (honoring Mr. Marchs shadowy depiction in the book, Hamill gives him no dialogue)? But even the material that is presented exactly as Alcott did gains fresh resonance.

Baldwins lingering looks at her daughters, especially Jo, convey that she knows each is a distinct and complicated individual, even if the world is unlikely to care. Marmee and grumpy Aunt March (Theatrical Treasure Wendy Lehr, whos hilarious) both stand as evidence that women are strong enough to survive their difficult lot in the mid-1860s and that things might be better in the 1870s and beyond.

In fact, maybe the Marches will have a little something to do with that? In this version, its unclear if the sort of life Jo dreams for herself in her wildest moments is even possible. But were still reading Alcotts autobiographical book 150 years after it was published and Greta Gerwig is currently making a film to star Saoirse Ronan as Jo, so we know it is not just possible but certain when Jo says, I want to be one of the greats and shake the world and outlive my time.

She has done that, of course. The Jungles provocative Little Women sometimes come off as cold, more about the head than the heart, but it sticks the landing with a gorgeous final image: Jo is at the front of the stage, writing for her life, with the rest of the cast behind her. As the lights dim, they all take a tiny, tentative step toward her. Toward the future.

chris.hewitt@startribune.com 612-673-4367 Twitter: @HewittStrib

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