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Fall Arts Guide 2018: Jungle Theater puts women center stage with female-produced takes on classic works

Little Women promotional image

Little Women promotional image

“I’m not interested in ‘museum theater,’ where we’re just going to the museum of history and saying, ‘Look at exactly what kind of teacups they used!’” says Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director of the Jungle Theater. “To me, it’s more about carrying the spirit of a writer forward.”

That attitude explains why the Jungle Theater’s fall offerings promise to be back-to-back must-sees—despite the fact that, on the face of it, a Little Women adaptation and a Pride and Prejudice sequel may not sound particularly groundbreaking. In this case, they’re evidence that the Jungle is claiming a consequential position in the national new-play landscape.

The Jungle, which had never before commissioned a play, has enlisted three of the country’s most in-demand playwrights to create new scripts for a double whammy: a world-premiere commission (Little Women) followed by a world-premiere co-commission (The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley).

“I’m so inspired by Sarah,” says Kate Hamill, whose Sense and Sensibility was directed by Rasmussen at the Guthrie Theater in 2016. “We’re in this really new, exciting stage of much-overdue female leadership in the American theater, and Sarah is really one of the most exciting young leadership faces.”

Hoping to lock Hamill in for a Jungle premiere, Rasmussen recalls, she asked if the playwright had anything in mind. "I said, 'How about Little Women?' She opened up her notebook, and Little Women was the first thing she had written on a list of things she was interested in."

Later, they realized that 2018 would be the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication, with multiple new film and TV adaptations coming out as well. “The more the merrier,” says Hamill. “Mine is very unlikely to be anything like Greta Gerwig’s.”

Laura Brueckner, Lauren Gunderson, Margot Melcon, Christina Baldwin, and Cara Phipps

Laura Brueckner, Lauren Gunderson, Margot Melcon, Christina Baldwin, and Cara Phipps courtesy Jungle Theater

Meanwhile, Rasmussen was also eagerly supporting The Wickhams. A sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the new play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon takes place in the same house, at the same time, as the duo’s earlier sequel, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.

Although the Jungle didn’t premiere Miss Bennet, last year it mounted a production that was one of the most rapturously received shows of the season. Gunderson and Melcon say they credit Rasmussen with providing early feedback that helped them shape the script, which has become an instant holiday classic at theaters across the country.

Rasmussen “has such a great fondness for playwrights and their creative process,” says Christina Baldwin, who directed the Jungle’s Miss Bennet and will return to direct The Wickhams. “The feedback that she gives is always very spot-on, but it never is prescriptive.”

Baldwin will also play Marmee in Little Women, the newest offering from a playwright widely lauded for her fresh adaptations of literary standbys by authors ranging from William Thackeray to Jane Austen.

“I’m really interested in reclaiming the classics,” says Hamill. “I love the classics, and I feel like if you love something, you shouldn’t lock it away in some dark closet and never air it out. You should let it out in the sunlight. I’m really interested in reclaiming the classics—particularly from a feminist, female-centered perspective—and making them radically inclusive.”

That inclusivity requires diverse casting. “We actually rather insist upon it,” says Gunderson. While the Austen sequels highlight the novel’s feminist themes, they also examine issues of class and caste.

“Jane Austen is for everybody,” says Melcon. “I think there is a real opportunity [to] take some of these classic pieces and bring them back with a different perspective. You don’t have to be white, upper-class British to understand what’s going on.”

Hamill feels the same way about the relevance of Little Women. One way she’s re-examining Louisa May Alcott’s novel is by shining new light on one of the story’s most beloved characters. In the book, Jo declares, “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.” Hamill thinks that remark, and others in a similar vein, are telling.

“I increasingly fixated on Jo,” says Hamill, “a character who, in my opinion, is not even sure she wants to be a woman, someone who nowadays would have more paths: not necessarily stuck in this binary, heteronormative system.”

“We’re excited that C. Michael Menge is playing Jo,” says Rasmussen. “They go by the pronoun ‘they,’ they don’t subscribe to a binary, gendered representation. That feels very true to Jo.”

Gunderson is currently, aside from Shakespeare, the most-produced playwright in America. That tally comes from widespread productions of all her 20-plus scripts, but she and Melcon have seen quick interest in Miss Bennet, which premiered in 2016.

It’s not just the themes that are resonating with today’s theatergoers: It’s the writers’ knack for making the characters come alive in scripts written with close attention to their theatrical possibilities.

“They have a deep fondness and understanding of these iconic characters,” says Baldwin about Gunderson and Melcon. “You’re working with a classic, and you still feel like you have freedom to translate it to a contemporary audience.”

“We have fun with the stage directions,” says Gunderson, who explains that the playwrights aimed to create a story that “feels like you’re in the world of Jane Austen, but it also doesn’t exhaust your ear with sentences that go on for three pages.”

By way of example, Rasmussen says that one of her favorite Gunderson/Melcon stage directions is “Mr. Darcy cannot even.”

So, these plays will make you laugh. “I think one of the most radical things we can do onstage is let women be funny,” says Gunderson. “There’s a bit of mythology about who’s allowed to be funny and what kind of funny is okay. Women are not usually in that category. Part of what we’re doing is being funny in a modern way, but also reminding people that women have been funny for a long time.”

When she was re-reading Little Women, says Hamill, “[I thought], ‘God, it’s funny. It’s so funny!’ It’s got so much relationship-based humor. Austen certainly has that as well.”

Hamill, an actor who has appeared in productions of her own adaptations, has earned particular praise for her ability to evoke a vibrant spirit.

“It’s a highly theatrical revisiting of Little Women,” says Hamill about her new script. “It’s something that’s going to be highly relevant, speaking to where we are right now as a country, and it’s going to have a lot of surprises. Don’t go in thinking you know exactly what’s going to happen.”

Baldwin and her collaborators, who endearingly captured the flurry of familial activity in Miss Bennet, have their work cut out for them with The Wickhams. Actors including James Rodríguez, reprising his role of Mr. Darcy alongside other returning cast members from the Jungle’s Miss Bennet, have been delighting in the carefully laid details.

“Already,” says Rasmussen, “James has a bunch of notes about how Wickhams overlays with Bennet, because they actually happen at the same time but on different floors of the house. James is like the investigative dramaturg: ‘Okay, so this scene lines up with this scene!’ The playwrights are just delighted.”

“It’s a ‘side-quel,’” says Baldwin, coining a term. “It’s a fun and fulfilling piece of theater by itself, but you do have these little Easter eggs of connection that are fun to find.”

The Wickhams is premiering at the Jungle simultaneously with a production at Marin Theatre Company; the two theaters are in dialogue with each other and with the playwrights as they work the new piece out.

When they decided to write Miss Bennet, Gunderson and Melcon recognized that theaters need holiday fare that goes beyond A Christmas Carol. Nonetheless, says Rasmussen, the hit show “came from not a producer’s dream, but a playwrights’ impulse. What I love about both of those writers is, they are as feisty and optimistic and buoyant as that script is.”

Two plays in, the pair hint that they still may not be finished expanding the world of Pride and Prejudice. Gunderson asks, rhetorically, “Who can get enough of Mr. Darcy?”

“It’s exciting to think about being a theater that generates work that will go on to have a life elsewhere in the country, but that starts with the work of our incredible actors and designers and technicians in town,” says Rasmussen. “What I love about making a new play is that it really does take a village of people, and they forever affect that script.”

Lively as these plays are, even adventurous adapters have to draw the line somewhere. Hamill, who promises her Little Women will be a show “you can absolutely bring your kids to,” laughs when asked whether the March sisters might have indulged in some of the NSFW cross-stitching Hamill has been known to do in her spare time.

Referring to Jo’s favorite 19th-century expletive, Hamill says, “I imagine ‘Christopher Columbus!’ got in there somehow. That, to them, is pretty strong cursing.”

Little Women

September 15 through October 31

The Wickhams

December 1-30

Jungle Theater
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-822-7063; www.jungletheater.com