At its proverbial heart, the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a freaky-deaky love triangle. There's a willful Puritan woman, a hunchbacked doctor, a crippled and ailing preacher, and a bratty love-child. All around them, the deaky gets freakier: Mistress Hibbins, the so-called witch; Master Brackett, the well-meaning jailor; and Gov. Bellingham, the barking patriarch.
Freakiest of all is Open Stage Theatre's production of The Scarlet Letter, as adapted by Phyllis Nagy. From the first moment, the stage is lost in a musty fog. On one side stands an elegant platform, representing a judge's bench, among other locales; on the other, a rough wooden scaffold. Between these monuments, there is only empty space, and no one in Open Stage's production seems to know how to fill it. Time and space are misty here, and so are the blocking and acting. As the tragic gothic tale unfolds, we are led from forest to town square, from cottage to courthouse to election parade, each scene melting ambiguously into the next.
Like watching a 17th-century Syriana, we scratch our heads over where the characters are and what they're talking about, and by the time we've determined, Ah, it's somebody's garden, we're whisked to the next scene.
The play is written without a sense of other life, as if these few souls are the only residents of Boston. Where Miller's The Crucible makes constant references to other neighbors, on-stage and off, Nagy's adaptation refers to only the principals, until suddenly the preacher addresses a crowd. It's jarring: For two hours we were nowhere, now we're surrounded by invisible throngs.
There are other confusions as well. Director David M. Maslow has designed an awe-inspiring set -- once again setting a high Open Stage standard -- but Beth Steinberg's costumes are bizarre. First we see period-accurate dresses, bonnets, buckled hats. Then Preacher Dimmesdale enters, wearing a sleeveless tunic that seems to be made of glitter. What New England Puritan would allow his preacher to walk around with exposed shoulders and biceps? This play takes place in Boston, for goodness' sake, not Provincetown. Not to mention young Pearl, who wears a nose-stud. We might also let this slide -- artistic license and all -- but a nose-stud?
In the end, Nagy's sleepy script is barely worth salvaging, and the cast seems to know it. The leaden lines force the actors to pronounce their every action and feeling, exchanging remarks like ships passing in the adulterous night. At one point, Dimmesdale admonishes Mistress Hibbins. "You speak in riddles," he cries. "Do I?" she replies.
Yes. Definitely yes.
The Scarlet Letter continues through May 13. Open Stage Theatre, 2835 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-281-9700.