Gothic/Romance in Nerve’s “The Heights”

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A view from “The Heights”

I’d intended to follow Nelly, to watch her reactions even when the focal action was elsewhere but I lost my way, so to speak, on the urban moors of Nerve’s production of “The Heights.”

Such decisions are encouraged during immersively staged “consensual theatre” which is Nerve’s stock and trade. Audience members mingle around the action and are free to follow their hearts. Going into this production, based on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I was oh-so-certain that Nelly would be the linchpin. She tells the tale, after all, this questionable narrator. Marisa Dluge, a Nerve regular, vividly conveyed this mesh of verbiage, modulating between narration and mimickry. My initial hypothesis was that Nelly would present the tale like she was playing with mental dolls, that every detail would be clearest through her perspective. The playbill even asked “Should we do what is right… or real?” and that seemed to be the kind of question that would vex Nelly, that ever vigilant, proper servant.

Nerve’s gritty, visceral production, thankfully, problematized my easy pre-interpretation.

First Obstacle: I found it impossible to ignore Catherine’s very embodied ghost. Just as Rachael Harbert was a revelation as the Red Queen in Nerve’s Alice, her portrayal here was eloquently gestural. Though Catherine never speaks a word during the performance, she and Nelly engage in a near constant dialogue, with Harbert providing physical response and counterpoint to Dluge’s accounts of the story. (If I were smarter, better read and only slightly more pretentious, I might launch some observation involving Sedgwick’s notion of homosociality, that Nelly and Catherine both use Heathcliff as an object of gratification, a token of exchange. But fuck the footnotes, OK?) My favorite moments of “The Heights” involve Harbert’s Catherine. For instance, her unabashed welcome of the returning Heathcliff, played by the handsome and talented Steve Xander Carson, where she fused herself to his body like a tattooed glyph, brought tears to my eyes. In another scene, she struggled palpably beneath the figure of Edgar, who is literally no more than a stuffed shirt, so painfully evocative of the weight of her ill-considered marriage. Her portrayal of that pivotal scene made sense of an enigma I found in the story. Catherine, too, broods on the question of rightness and realness, which honestly, I missed in my quick perusal of Brontë’s novel.

A second obstacle to my facile pre-reading was the evocatively creepy stage design. Full disclosure: I helped build some of the pieces but the way my scant contributions were woven into the complete design was quite remarkable. I particularly liked how the weird assemblages of Book/Trees cast textural shadows around the room. Lines from the text were written in large letters across the floor, some of which were only legible from the balcony. That raised alcove offered other treats for the curious. The set was interesting before the performance but was even more intriguing after the actors had their way with it. While audience members filed out, I wandered the set again, taking in the family grave site that had been erected in one corner during the performance, and in another corner, the site where Heathcliff (nearly) exhumed Catherine’s corpse. It felt appropriate that “The Heights” was staged in Gallery 17, an art gallery in the Russell Industrial Center since the set evolved in respond to the actions of the play, becoming an art installation all its own. In fact, before the final performance this Saturday, Nerve is allowing patrons to tour this installation (3:00 – 4:00 PM, Saturday April 25)

I could quibble about certain infelicities. The echoe-y cement walls swallowed some of the dialogue. Before the show, we were warned about proper behavior, which gave a sense of undue delicacy to this rather rough and tumble ballet. And the audience clumped together at times like they’d been given assigned seats. No matter, the production roared to life subsuming all impediments.

Spring is the time for lovers, and Nelly’s stormy tale of Heathcliff and Catherine is indeed a timeless affair. In proper fairy tales, love ends in happy ever afters, a happiness which apparently relies on rightness and propriety. “The Heights,” however, is no such comforting bedtime story. If you’re fortunate enough to score tickets, this production portrays other passions, ones that leave us breathless, ruined, quite unfit for Heaven, yet darkly fulfilled.

Right or Real? Nerve leaves the choice to you.

Check here for ticket availability.

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