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2019 FESTIVAL OF INDEPENDENT THEATRES

<span>Victoria Wright and Bethany Burnside in <em>Jo &amp; Louisa</em> from WingSpan Theatre Co.</span>

FIT Review: Jo & Louisa

Alcott adoration abounds in WingSpan Theatre Company's Jo & Louisa, a rousing confrontation between character and author.



published Sunday, July 21, 2019

Photo: Lowell Sargeant
Bethany Burnside and Victoria Wright in Jo & Louisa from WingSpan Theatre Co.

 

Dallas — Jo March, the “wild, coltish” tomboy sister of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, has inspired independent literary women all over the world since this early work of YA fiction was published in two parts in 1868 and 1869.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical stories about the four March sisters growing up in genteel poverty in 19th century New England is available in virtually every language, and has been adapted for at least four stage plays, a musical, an opera, and a slew of TV versions, notably the 2018 PBS Masterpiece series. Film adaptations started in 1918 and have never really stopped, with stars from Katharine Hepburn to June Allyson eager to embody willful, smart Jo March. Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon got Oscar Award nominations for playing Jo and her Marmee in the popular 1994 film. And in the works as I write, with a release date of Christmas Day, is an epic new Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig and featuring Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Meryl Steep, no less. Timeless stuff, for sure.

Meanwhile, over at the Festival of Independent Theatres, WingSpan Theatre Company is producing the world premiere of Jo & Louisa, a vivid, funny imagining of a 55-minute conversation between author Alcott and her surrogate character, written by award-winning Dallas playwright Isabella Russell-Ides and directed by Wingspan Artistic Director Susan Sargeant.

Now, you might think that the character who became the beloved model for bright, ambitious girls everywhere might be grateful to her creator. You’ve got another think coming in this tumultuous confrontation.

Louisa, played by Victoria Wright with elegant, shoulders-back courage and a wry smile, sorts through notes and journals in some indeterminate space and time, furnished with a red Oriental carpet and desk that embody the little luxuries paid for by the book she wrote only because her publisher demanded it—and her family needed the cash. She’s cat-smile pleased that a copy of Little Women is at the center of a major scene in Elena Ferrante’s best-selling recent novel My Brilliant Friend, a story set in a Naples ghetto about how one studious girl escapes poverty by writing about the adventures of her bold friend. Louisa tosses out one current speculation—that the famed pseudonymous Italian novelist just might be a man and a woman writing in tandem—throwing open the question of her own sexuality, and the stage door that reveals the tempestuous girl she once penned into being.

Jo, played by tall, slender, and utterly intrepid Bethany Burnside, enters pissed-off, braids swinging side-to-side over her long, homespun dress. She’s hot to argue her case. “I am your avatar, as they say these days, and you are a brand!” she informs a surprised Louisa. Then suddenly, Jo cuts the small talk and tells her creator: “I want to talk to you, girl to God. You made me wild and coltish, and then you broke me, domesticated me.” The play’s afoot and the heated dialogue carries us back, both into the world of the March sisters of the book and the real-life times of the Alcott family, all of it enhanced by Lowell Sargeant’s evocative sound design and images projected on a screen behind the actors.

Maybe Louisa didn’t go to college, but her penniless, Utopian dad was tight with Up East philosophers and literary lights, among them Thoreau and Emerson, upon whom Louisa planted a torrid, unfulfilled crush. She even met Margaret Fuller, the journalist and women’s rights advocate. They’re all buried near one another on a hilltop in Concord. Now there’s a transcendental view.

Burnside’s Jo is a pleasure to watch, her mobile features shifting from a girlish smile to a furious glare as she bullies her creator into sitting down to consider her big request: “Let me be a man!” From then on the questions and answers fly in all directions, from lesbian leanings to bisexual bewilderment, and many degrees in between.

Director Sargeant brings Russell-Ides’ vigorous but sometimes word-weighty script to life, moving her vivacious women all over the stage and giving them clever costume shifts, thanks to Barbara C. Cox. There’s also a chest full of marvelous props, and ridiculous theatrical tricks that create surprise, and make us laugh with and love the perpetrators.

So, what’s a God to do, once a girl is made? What, indeed. Well, one thing to do is make a play. Louisa and Jo (or Wright and Burnside, if you prefer), performing bits of the bodice-ripping melodramas Jo wrote for her sisters to play, are flat-out hilarious. They make me want to read the book again, at least one more time.

Louisa shares a tender, maternal side of herself as she shares a bottle of wine with her impatient creature, explaining the real ugliness of being poor and cold and forced to work in cruel conditions for family “friends.” Dauntless Jo presses on, excited as she explains how open things are to transfiguration these days, pleading with Louisa to subscribe to the March Method of Misery Repair. I made up my mind, on the spot, that it’s just what I need!

Enjoy the girl. Enjoy the woman who wrote her. Enjoy the play.

 

 

» Jo and Louisa is performed:

  • 5 p.m. Saturday, July 27
  • 5 p.m. Sunday, July 28
  • 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3

» The 21st annual Festival of Independent Theatres runs through Aug. 3, 2019 at The Bath House Cultural Center. For more information, visit www.festivalofindependenttheatres.org or call 1-800-617-6904.

To see a breakdown of the groups and shows, go here.

To see reviews and more coverage of FIT, see our special section here.

 

2019 FESTIVAL SCHEDULE

*denotes first appearance in the festival

 

THURSDAY, JULY 25, 2019 (8 PM)

Audacity Theatre Lab – The Beast of Hyperborea

Bootstraps Comedy Theater – Nerve

 

FRIDAY, JULY 26, 2019 (8 PM)

Flexible Grey Theatre Company – Sky’s the Limit

Leos Ensemble – small hours

 

FRIDAY JULY 26, 2019 (10 PM)

CABARET

Jodi Crawford Wright in Songs My Mama Taught Me

 

SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2019 (2 PM)

Leos Ensemble – small hours

Lily & Joan Theatre Company – Marilyn, Pursued by a Bear

 

SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2019 (5 PM)

Imprint Theatreworks – Dirty Dirty Night Squirrel

WingSpan Theatre, Co. – Jo & Louisa

 

SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2019 (8 PM)

The Very Good Dance Theatre – The 1st Annual Gay Show

Audacity Theatre Lab – The Beast of Hyperborea

 

SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2019 (10 PM)

CABARET

Kathryn Taylor Rose in Nobody Knows What They’re Doing

 

SUNDAY, JULY 28, 2019 (2 PM)

Flexible Grey Theatre Company – Sky’s the Limit

Audacity Theatre Lab – The Beast of Hyperborea

 

SUNDAY, JULY 28, 2019 (5 PM)

WingSpan Theatre, Co. – Jo & Louisa

Imprint Theatreworks – Dirty Dirty Night Squirrel

 

THURSDAY, AUGUST 1, 2019 (8 PM)

Bootstraps Comedy Theater – Nerve

The Very Good Dance Theatre – The 1st Annual Gay Show

 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 2, 2019 (8 PM)

Lily & Joan Theatre Company – Marilyn, Pursued by a Bear

Imprint Theatreworks – Dirty Dirty Night Squirrel

 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 2, 2019 (10 PM)

CABARET

Jodi Crawford Wright in Songs My Mama Taught Me

 

SATURDAY, AUGUST 3, 2019 (2 PM)

Imprint Theatreworks – Dirty Dirty Night Squirrel

Audacity Theatre Lab – The Beast of Hyperborea

 

SATURDAY, AUGUST 3, 2019 (5 PM)

Flexible Grey Theatre Company – Sky’s the Limit

Leos Ensemble – small hours

 

SATURDAY, AUGUST 3, 2019 (8 PM)

WingSpan Theatre, Co. – Jo & Louisa

Bootstraps Comedy Theater – Nerve

 Thanks For Reading




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FIT Review: Jo & Louisa
Alcott adoration abounds in WingSpan Theatre Company's Jo & Louisa, a rousing confrontation between character and author.
by Martha Heimberg

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