Nathaniel Hawthorne's slut-shaming classic The Scarlet Letter isn't fun at all, but Michelle Horgen's new adaptation at Portland Playhouse, Scarlet, really is. It's also a musical? I don't know, I'm just as surprised as you are. Because with the crucial exception of the 2010 Hawthorne-inspired movie Easy A, I hold no special place in my heart for The Scarlet Letter. None. Yes, it's a morality tale about the far-reaching damages of New England Puritanism, but it spills much ink on female suffering to make this larger point, and I am too young to have been forced to read it in high school. Speaking of high school, Commissioner Nick Fish brought his high school copy of the book to the play's opening night performance, in a gesture both highly adorable and expected from our arts commissioner, before giving a peppy speech reminding all assembled of the value of art. You don't have to tell me twice, mister!
He also wasn't wrong. What makes this version of The Scarlet Letter so enjoyable is its depiction of Hester Prynne not as a vessel for a lofty rhetorical argument against conformity, but as a person–a woman who, like many of us, finds herself in violation of a social contract she has no recollection of signing, who is punished publicly for something her male counterparts do freely, and who must navigate a restrictive, backward community with nothing but her own inner resources. This sounds like most women I know, and in this regard, Rebecca Teran's Hester is delightfully ordinary. She's smart and she's human, and her depth, inventiveness, and sympathetic characterization are enough to get me on board with the idea of a Scarlet Letter musical, which is no mean feat.
A general aesthetic of well-employed simplicity also helps matters, from a small but strong pit orchestra–major props to the oboists, who have their work cut out for them here–to Alison Heryer's costume designs, which employ color sparingly and smartly to break up the Puritan shades of greige and visually signal narrative progression. But my favorite part of the musical arrives in the form of Horgen's song "Call Me a Witch," about women being accused of witchcraft for failing to adhere to restrictive social norms, sung with gleeful dry wit by Susannah Mars. When Mars took the stage for this particular number, I realized what set this version of The Scarlet Letter apart: It's less caught up in proving Hester's innocence than in suggesting an alternative to a system that requires such an exoneration at all–an alternative Scarlet depicts as one of community and friendship among marginalized women. That's a coven I'd gladly join.